House panel approves Homeland Security authorization bill

Committee backs amendment repealing the department’s authority to implement a new personnel system.

After debating a handful of controversial amendments, the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that would authorize programs and spending at the Homeland Security Department for next fiscal year.

The committee approved a massive fiscal 2008 Homeland Security authorization bill, giving the department authority to spend nearly $40 billion in discretionary funds -- about $2 billion more than the White House requested.

Within a bloc of 18 amendments that passed by voice vote was one that would authorize a new grant program to help states comply with the so-called Real ID law, which requires them to begin issuing new secure identification documents in May 2008. The bill would authorize $300 million in such grants for the next three fiscal years.

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the bill will help the committee solidify its jurisdiction over the department.

"It establishes greater oversight of the department; brings more transparency and accountability in the department's procurement activities; provides the department's workforce with the resources, training and respect they deserve; and enhances strategic planning throughout the department," Thompson said.

Committee members were most divided on amendments dealing with border security and enforcement of immigration laws.

An amendment from Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., for example, would have authorized the department's automated targeting system, which uses computer algorithms to conduct risk assessments on travelers coming into the country. Dent said such a system was recommended by the 9/11 Commission and has been in use by the department for years.

Chairman Thompson led opposition to the amendment, saying the department has not yet issued a public notice for the system describing how privacy will be protected. "Until a new notice is released, I consider this amendment premature and the program itself remains highly questionable," Thompson said. The amendment was defeated by a 16-14 vote.

An amendment from Rep. David Davis, R-Tenn., would have allowed Homeland Security to reimburse state and local law enforcement agencies for costs associated with training police officers to enforce immigration laws. It was defeated by a 15-15 vote.

The committee also approved by a 17-13 margin an amendment from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., that would prevent Homeland Security from reducing the workforce of the Federal Protective Service until GAO conducts a report on the source of shortfalls at the agency.

The committee also voted 17-13 to approve an amendment from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, that would repeal the department's authority to implement a new personnel system.

By voice vote, the committee approved an amendment from Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., that would prohibit the transfer of the US-VISIT foreigner tracking system to the department's new National Protection and Programs Directorate until the department submits a plan to Congress for verifying when travelers leave the country.

The committee also approved by voice vote an amendment from House Homeland Security Border Subcommittee Chairwoman Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., to strike a provision in the bill requiring the department to suspend hiring, training or deploying Border Patrol agents.

An amendment from Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., also passed by voice vote; it would require Homeland Security to share information with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies during emergencies to assist in the location of missing children or registered sex offenders.