House subcommittee adds $1.8 billion for homeland security

Spending bill withholds $1.3 billion until DHS provides strategic plans, financial information for several programs and operations.

The House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday approved an fiscal 2007 spending bill for the Homeland Security Department that is $1.8 billion higher than current spending but withholds funds for several major department priorities and rejects for a second year in a row a proposed increase in airline passenger fees.

The bill sets discretionary spending at $32 billion, compared to the $31 billion requested by the Bush administration. Officials wanted to generate $1.3 billion by increasing a fee charged to airline passengers, but Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said he wanted "to send a message to the administration that this fee is dead on arrival." He added that his panel is not hesitating to give the department "spankings and punishment."

Indeed, the spending bill withholds $1.3 billion in funding until the department gives Congress strategic plans and financial information for several programs and operations. For example, the bill withholds almost $500 million from the Science and Technology Directorate until the department "provides an expenditure plan to back up its poor budget justification and improve its financial management systems."

About $350 million is held back from the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program until an expenditure plan is submitted and approved. Similarly, the massive Secure Border Initiative program has $25 million frozen. After members said the department needs more oversight, Rogers quipped, "If you want to withhold more money, I've got an ear" open for suggestions.

The bill provides about $4.2 billion to beef up port and cargo container security, a boost of nearly $450 million from the current level. But only $200 million is provided for port security grants, half of what the House recently authorized to be spent under a massive maritime security bill.

The lawmakers decried a major disconnect between House appropriators and authorizers, complaining that House authorizers are passing bills that are not realistic in budget terms. Appropriators were divided on whether they should address a raging dispute over the future of the problem-plagued Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The House Homeland Security Committee's senior members want to keep FEMA within the department, but House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders want to remove FEMA and make it an independent, Cabinet-level agency under the White House.

"We have two competing freight trains running though Congress with respect to FEMA," said Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis. "I think if we don't make a choice we're going to continue to have two different authorizing committees at war with each other ... If we want to see some serious change, I think we're going to have to try to push and lead it."

The budget provides about $2.6 billion for FEMA, $325 million below current spending.

The spending bill, which the full appropriations committee will take up next week, boosts funding for the department's Preparedness Directorate to about $3.9 billion, about $450 million more than requested. And the bill provides about $20 billion for border protection and immigration enforcement, about $1.6 billion over the current level.