Senators question costs of new department

Senate Budget Commitee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and ranking member Pete Domenici, R-N.M., are voicing concern that the Bush administration has failed to fully account for the potential costs of the new Homeland Security Department.

"[C]reating a new department and equipping it to carry out its mission has the potential to add significantly to future spending," the senators wrote in a letter late last week to Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who is piecing together the Senate version of the homeland security plan.

Lieberman has collected recommendations from panels with jurisdiction over parts of the new department in anticipation of marking up a bill next week.

In their letter, Conrad and Domenici said the administration has provided only "limited detail" of proposed spending for the new department, "making it impossible to fully analyze the request." Furthermore, the senators wrote: "The evolving definition of what is homeland security makes it difficult to track spending or compare proposals. The Congress should require that the administration work with it to develop a common definition of homeland security."

Conrad and Domenici asked Lieberman to require from the administration "a special analysis on homeland security," and stressed the importance of obtaining "a detailed numeric presentation of its total homeland security budget request."

The senators also raised concerns that flexibility to shift funds within the new department-an issue that has provoked bipartisan opposition from appropriators in both chambers-could lead to wasteful spending. Conrad and Domenici cited recent reports "that the administrator of the new Transportation Security Administration spent $410,000 to renovate his office suite."

The senators added, "We want to ensure that any additional authorities provided to the administration do not lead to similar examples of excessive or wasteful spending."

Taking aim at the administration's proposal to allow the department's secretary to sell assets and retain the revenues, Conrad and Domenici echoed concerns raised by Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, that the proposal circumvents congressional oversight.

Conrad and Domenici also expressed concern over the so-called alternate human resources management system envisioned for the new department and asked for the administration to state explicitly whether employees would have collective bargaining and other rights.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday reviewed recommendations to move the U.S. Customs Service to the proposed department.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., indicated that many Customs Service functions should remain in one agency because of their integration.

Finance ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, expressed concern that Customs Service employees would lose some of the whistleblower protections they have now if they were moved into the new department. He also questioned whether the agency's inspector general would retain the independence to review its operations.

On both those matters, a Treasury witness said there would be no change from current policy.

Last week, the Ways and Means Committee approved a plan to shift most of the Customs Service to the new department, but with a modification to reflect the committee's jurisdiction over the collection of customs fees and duties. Customs employees with those responsibilities would remain at Treasury.