House backs bill unraveling Homeland Security personnel reforms

The fiscal 2008 Homeland Security authorization bill cleared the House by a wide margin Wednesday night, with language to repeal the department's controversial personnel reforms intact.

The White House has threatened to veto the measure (H.R. 1684) over the personnel provision. The National Treasury Employees Union praised lawmakers for keeping the language in the face of that threat.

"The four-year DHS personnel experiment has been a litany of failure because the law and regulations effectively gut employee due process rights and put in serious jeopardy the agency's ability to recruit and retain a workforce capable of accomplishing its critical missions," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley, in a statement.

The authorization bill passed after an unexpected exchange of barbs and put-downs between the top Democrat and Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.

The two lawmakers, one of whom succeeded the other as chairman this year, traded barbs on the floor and in interviews over who has done a better job advancing key legislation and standing up for the jurisdiction of the committee.

House Homeland Security ranking member Peter King, R-N.Y., charged that Democrats took a step backward in staking out the committee's jurisdictional authority by conceding too quickly to remove key provisions from the authorization bill that might cross into other committees' turf.

"I thought they collapsed too quickly on the jurisdictional issues," King told CongressDaily after his verbal sparring match with House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., on the floor. "My judgment is that it's more important to fight to protect and expand the jurisdiction of the committee."

Democrats countered that the only way to bring the bill to the House floor was to compromise and avert potential turf battles with other lawmakers and committee leaders. They pointed out that Thompson succeeded in getting a bill to the floor for the first time in two years.

King said he fought and won jurisdictional battles last year, including against other GOP chairmen, in passing a major maritime security bill, legislation to overhaul the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a measure giving the Homeland Security Department authority to regulate security at the nation's chemical facilities.

Thompson countered that King and Republicans did not include in those bills provisions dealing with rail security and interoperable emergency communications.

"In the port bill last year, he dropped rail security," Thompson said of King after coming off the floor. "I got it done this year. He didn't fight for interoperability and it got dropped from FEMA reform. It was part of 9/11 legislation that passed the House [in January].

"I respect my colleague, but he must be turned around and walking the wrong way," Thompson said.

King believes the House Homeland Security Committee lost some clout because Thompson did not stand his ground and fight for the Homeland Security authorization bill, which passed out of committee unanimously.

"It seemed like that on every key issue that was raised, the committee conceded jurisdiction," King said. "I think we would have been in a stronger position if the Democrats had stood stronger."

The authorization bill ultimately cleared the House by a 296-126 vote. It authorizes nearly $40 billion in spending for Homeland Security Department programs for the next fiscal year -- about $2 billion more than the White House requested.

In a procedural move, Republicans won a 264-140 vote to attach an amendment that would authorize the Homeland Security Department to use the Automated Targeting System to screen people entering and leaving the United States.

The Homeland Security Committee is a very young committee compared to others in the House. It was first established as a select committee in 2002 when 22 federal agencies were being merged to create the Homeland Security Department.

Powerful chairmen of other committees were not willing at the time to concede turf, and the committee has grappled with jurisdictional battles ever since.

The 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress should establish one principal committee in the House and Senate responsible for oversight and authorization of homeland security programs.

Republicans did not implement the recommendation when they controlled Congress.

Although Democrats pledged to implement unfulfilled recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, they have not yet addressed the issue of consolidating homeland security oversight and do not appear to have any appetite to do so.

The Homeland Security Department now reports to about 80 congressional committees and subcommittees.

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