DHS Secretary Promises 'Better Pay Systems, Better Benefits'

DHS Secretary John Kelly appears before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday. DHS Secretary John Kelly appears before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The Homeland Security Department is looking for way to reform the pay structures at its various agencies, its new secretary told a Senate committee Wednesday, saying the current system is too fragmented.

The department will attempt to “unify” the array of pay systems in place at components such as Customs and Border Protection, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and the Secret Service, DHS Secretary John Kelly said at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. In a rare move for the nascent Trump administration, Kelly praised the Obama administration’s efforts -- led by his predecessor Jeh Johnson -- to bring “unity of effort” to DHS and vowed to see it through.

“We will start to unify things like acquisition and pay,” Kelly said. The department will “come up with better pay systems, better benefits.” He added: “Jeh started it. It’s a really great thing. We’re going to finish it over the next year or so.”

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The current system does not make sense, Kelly said, and can lead to components poaching employees from each other. He said he would task recently confirmed Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke with seeing the changes through and work with Congress to get the proper authorities.

Kelly appeared to call into question a major Trump campaign promise and early executive action, saying he did not yet know the “exact figures” necessary for a larger CBP or ICE. The two agencies are currently developing and implementing plans to hire 5,500 and 10,000 new employees, respectively, per an order Trump signed in January. (Kelly allowed for criticism of another of Trump’s orders, referencing his ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries that has since been revised and is currently being fought in court, when he said “various executive orders have been put out there, some of them effectively some of them not so effectively.”)

Kelly added that he was sure the Secret Service needs to expand. “They are carrying a load that is almost crushing the individual agent,” he said.

The secretary also promised to improve morale at the department -- DHS has for years toiled in the basement of rankings of best agencies to work -- saying his installment alone has already provided a significant boost. Kelly repeatedly pointed blame at the Obama administration for the morale issues. Asked by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., what specific policies have led to higher job satisfaction at the department, Kelly responded briskly, “My leadership.”

He elaborated that the workforce felt hamstrung by former leadership and he was allowing his employees “to do their jobs.”

In addition to the hiring surge, Kelly presumed flexibility on Trump’s promise to build a physical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He said he would rely on CBP to determine where a “barrier” was necessary, adding he would include fencing, technology and personnel in that definition. Kelly explained he interpreted a “wall” to mean “all of that.”

“The president told me ‘Kelly, go do it,’ ” the secretary said. “I have a lot of elbow room.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., pressed the secretary to convince the president of that interpretation, saying it was embarrassing to continue to insist there would be a physical wall and Mexico would pay for it, as Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail.

Kelly said he could not provide a cost estimate for the barrier because he did “not know what it is going to look like,” and details such as if there would be solar panels on it or how it would be painted must still be sorted out. The deadline for companies to respond to CBP’s requests for proposal  -- one calling for a solid concrete wall and the other asking for different border wall designs -- passed this week, with hundreds of companies offering submissions. Trump requested $1.4 billion for the design and construction of the wall and other border security infrastructure investments this year, as well as $2.6 billion in his fiscal 2018 budget proposal. 

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