Prospects for homeland security policy bill look better next year

For the seventh year in a row, Congress will not produce an authorization bill setting policy and spending priorities for the Homeland Security Department, according to lawmakers and aides.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., confirmed this week that his panel will not mark up a fiscal 2010 Homeland Security authorization bill, explaining that the Obama administration asked him not to rush such a measure through Congress this fall.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has no plans to handle a departmentwide measure, preferring instead to approve smaller discrete authorization bills for certain Homeland Security agencies and operations.

An authorization bill is one of the main ways Congress can direct the operations of an agency. The Senate and House Armed Services committees, for example, produce a bill authorizing defense and military programs and spending every year.

But since its creation in 2003, the Homeland Security Department has never operated under an authorization bill, even though it has more than 200,000 employees and spends more than $40 billion in taxpayer funds annually.

Some lawmakers and aides believed the time was ripe for enacting a Homeland Security authorization bill, given the arrival of the first new administration since the department's creation and Democratic control of both the White House and Congress.

"My staff has been working on a DHS authorization bill to strengthen the management and integration of the department and authorize appropriate funding levels for key programs," Lieberman said in a statement.

"The administration has asked us to slow the process down while it gets its full roster of DHS leaders in place," he added. "Given the enormous amount of work that the Senate still has left to accomplish this year -- including healthcare reform, climate change, financial regulatory reform, and several appropriations bills -- I don't anticipate getting an authorization bill to the floor this year, but it remains high on my agenda for the 111th Congress."

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, raised the possibility of getting a bill done next year, saying she will continue to work with Lieberman's staff on an authorization bill.

Across Capitol Hill, Thompson opened the year saying his committee would take up an authorization bill. But he has focused instead on moving separate bills targeting specific Homeland Security agencies and operations.

Thompson's committee so far has marked up an authorization bill for the Transportation Security Administration, which passed the House in June, and legislation that would extend and expand chemical facility security regulations, which remains pending in the House.

An aide to Thompson said the panel plans this fall to mark up authorization bills for the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the department's Science and Technology Directorate; the Management Directorate; and the Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

But the absence of a departmentwide bill in the House has stoked simmering Republican complaints.

"I think it's a serious mistake," said Homeland Security ranking member Peter King, R-N.Y., who as chairman of the committee in 2006 spearheaded House passage of a Homeland Security authorization bill. "If you're going to be a serious committee, you should do an authorization bill the way serious committees do them and not in bits and pieces."

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