Port security dispute holds up OMB management nominee

A dispute over port security funding is holding up President Bush's nomination of Clay Johnson to be deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has put a hold on Johnson's nomination to protest a move by the Transportation Security Administration to use funds appropriated for port security to finance airport security costs. The security agency has proposed tapping $28 million from Operation Safe Commerce, a government-industry program to safeguard shipping containers, and $105 million in port security grants, to make up for funding shortfalls in its airport security budget.

Murray's hold, applied on May 14, is designed to pressure the Bush administration to release grants for Operation Safe Commerce, which has received $58 million from Congress but has not yet been implemented by TSA. Murray wants to protect all funds appropriated for the program, including the $28 million TSA is seeking to divert, according to a spokesman in her office.

"The administration is proposing to raid more than half the funds that the Congress and the administration have approved for Operation Safe Commerce," said Todd Webster, Murray's communications director. He added that TSA has been slow to start the program, which first gained funding in the fiscal 2002 supplemental bill that was passed last July.

"It's been almost a full year since Congress approved this funding and since then, this money has been sitting in a fund in Washington, instead of protecting our ports," said Webster.

Brian Turmail, a TSA spokesman, said the agency had proposed "reprogramming" the port security funds in order to meet specific congressional mandates for airport security, including a Dec. 31 deadline for screening all checked baggage electronically. He said the agency still plans to spend $30 million on Operation Safe Commerce and $265 million on port security programs this year.

"That's almost triple the amount that was spent on port security last year, even if you take away the funds that we have suggested for reprogramming," Turmail said.

Murray's hold marks at least the second time a senator has blocked Johnson's nomination to be deputy director for management at OMB. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., put a hold on Johnson to protest the administration's competitive sourcing initiative, which seeks to put 425,000 federal jobs up for competition for private firms. Byrd lifted his hold on May 16.

It is also the latest chapter in the effort to fund Operation Safe Commerce. Conceived shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the project is designed to protect shipping containers at each point along a shipping route. It will test new technologies for securing containers that pass through three of the largest U.S. seaports, the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, New York/New Jersey, and Seattle/Tacoma. At each port, officials have joined with federal and industry partners to study shipping routes to find where and how containers can be protected from potential terrorism. At Los Angeles/Long Beach, officials recruited security experts from Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to help evaluate new technology.

The ports submitted grant proposals by March 20, TSA's deadline, and now are waiting to hear about funding from Washington. "We'd be ready to go tomorrow, we just need to know the money is available," said Capt. John Holmes, the Coast Guard captain of the port in Long Beach. All grants will finance tests along various shipping routes, and the ports will handle grant administration chores for TSA. "The ports do not gain anything by doing these projects," said Holmes. "In fact they stand to lose because they have to put manpower into grant management."

TSA's Turmail said the agency would issue some grants later this month or in July. "It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," he said. The agency is taking other steps to trim costs, including cutting its workforce of baggage screeners by 6,000 positions.

Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based policy group, said TSA's budget woes should not delay Operation Safe Commerce. "This program hasn't seen a dime so far," he said. Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who helped design Operation Safe Commerce, believes port security has not been a top priority for the Bush administration.

"The issue really seems to be the extent to which the administration is committed to do anything about port security, and it seems pretty clear here from a budgetary standpoint that they're not seeing it as a priority," he said.

Murray intends to keep her hold on Johnson's nomination until TSA releases all funds for Operation Safe Commerce. "$58 million is what Congress approved and what the president himself signed into law, and that's the funding that needs to go out to our ports," said Webster. The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment.

TSA and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection share management duties for Operation Safe Commerce, but TSA has received all funding for the program to date.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec