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Lawmakers Hunt Sequester Alternative in Defense, DHS Savings

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Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

House lawmakers on Tuesday probed for alternatives to sequestration’s across-the-board budget cuts, interrogating executives and auditors from agencies many lawmakers associate with wasteful spending -- the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

The resulting fireworks touched on scenarios ranging from Cabinet members resigning to fighter planes being canceled to inspectors general gaining more subpoena authority.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., pinch-hitting as chairman at the start of the hearing, one of a series held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, accused the Obama administration of “touting, now that the sequester in effect, allegedly harmful consequences rather than identifying waste fraud and abuse.” He rattled off a list of questionable federal expenditures such as $27 million for pottery classes in Morocco, a half-million on specialty shampoos for dogs and cats, $14,000 on swine manure management. He then proposed that the committee “work in a bipartisan, productive and non-alarmist manner.”

Mica then blasted the Homeland Security Department officials for having too many highly paid Transportation Security Administration employees bunched up at headquarters at the same time that Secretary Janet Napolitano was warning this month that sequestration would cause long waits for passengers to go through airport screening. “Any reason Janet Napolitano shouldn’t resign?” he asked Rafael Borras, undersecretary for management at Homeland Security. “And why you shouldn’t step down too?”

Calling TSA a bloated, out-of-control agency, Mica demanded to know why DHS couldn’t simply move money around to adjust screeners to avoid disruption from sequestration, saying that many lesser-used airports don’t need them at all.

Borras questioned Mica’s “characterizations of people’s intentions,” saying the department is “doing everything we can to minimize the impact of sequestration, minimize the disruption to traveling public and movement of cargo, and response to disasters.” But, he said, sequestration itself is “agnostic,” and there are limits to the ability to move money without violating the Budget Impoundment and Control Act, he said. “There was an expectation in DHS and other agencies that it wouldn’t take effect,” he said. DHS is reducing overtime and training at TSA, but no furloughs are planned. Furloughs of 12 to 14 days have been announced, he added, at Customs and Border Patrol.

Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told Borras the department should have been planning for 19 months and not to expect new funds. Still, the lawmaker praised DHS for being more specific than most agencies in responding to his requests for a listing of potential savings.

Issa turned to Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, quizzing him on how he uses inspector general recommendations and imploring the department to reduce waste in weapons systems and through smaller steps such as exploiting the use of global online auctions to sell off spare parts. “There’s been a mess at DoD since before most people in this room were born,” Issa said. “The world has moved on.”

Ranking minority member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was even more critical, posing tough questions on the long-troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. “Twelve years, $400 billion, and it can’t fly in combat, can’t fly at night, and can’t land on an aircraft carrier,” he said, warning that the program could cost a $1 trillion over 30 years. “Is government getting what it paid for?”

Hale cautioned that “the plane is still in development, and we need it today, but we will do a better job managing it and make this plane fly.” He confirmed that funding for the F-35 bill be reduced 7 percent under sequestration, in ways only the program manager can decide. “The whole game may change if Congress passes a budget this month,” Hale added. Because of such budget uncertainty, the Pentagon may not meet the April 1 deadline for delivering to Congress its mandatory plan to implement sequestration, Hale said. “The continuing resolution may change the whole equation.” In testimony, Hale cited Pentagon savings of $150 billion from 2012 through 2016, with more efficiencies planned. And he asked Congress to reconsider some of its resistance to proposals to slow growth in areas such as lower-priority weapons and military pay and health benefits.

Lynne M. Halbrooks, principal deputy inspector general at the Defense Department, responded to the criticism of the F-35 by saying her office decided it could “add value” not by duplicating investigations by the department and the Government Accountability Office, but through “an assessment of quality of management of systems by looking at contractor sites.” She expects to report in a few months.

Overall, she testified, over the past 10 years, the Pentagon IG has issued more than 1,300 reports, with 7,684 recommendations, 95 percent of which were addressed and closed, saving $37.3 billion with potential for $3.5 billion more.

Homeland Security Deputy Inspector General Charles Edwards said his office, since March 2011, has made 900 recommendations, and DHS concurred with 95 percent. Of 8,068 recommendations since March 2003, 1, 253 or 16 percent remain open, with potential savings of $1.2 billion, he said.

Issa asked the IGs if they want greater subpoena authority. Holbrooks said she had used it only twice since winning status as the sole IG with that power in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. “People know we have it. It works well, but it has to be used carefully and judiciously, and may not translate to other agencies,” she said.

Edwards said the IG community is divided on subpoena power, but “I feel the need to get outside agencies to contractors. It would be prudent and would bolster whole IG community.”

Other lawmakers addressed questions of sequester’s true impact. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., pressed Barras about Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s recent decision to release 10 “aggravated felons” held in immigration jails, citing budget shortfalls. “At $122 a day per man, times 10, that’s only 1,200,” Gowdy said. “Are you saying you don’t have more than $1,200 in unobligated funds you couldn’t move around?”

Borras said he would move funds around if he could. “If I had the discretion to pick and choose under the law, I would do that,” he said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., noted that “Congress mandates the line items. There seems to be a narrative that that the sequester is not so bad, but just last summer people were saying how apocalyptic it will be. But the fact that you can’t see it doesn’t mean there’s no apocalypse,” he argued. “Did we expect sequestration to kick in in 19 days? It’s a rolling set of steady reductions that cumulatively will have impact.”

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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