Senate bill would transfer agriculture inspectors out of DHS

Measure proposed in part to address concerns about a lack of resources for checks to adequately protect against foreign pests.

A bill recently introduced in the Senate would transfer agriculture inspection duties from the Homeland Security Department to the Agriculture Department, where they originally resided.

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., would shift the duties for inspections at all U.S. entry points from DHS' Customs and Border Protection bureau to Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The move would affect about 1,800 CBP agricultural inspectors. One CBP manager who asked to remain anonymous said it would be another example of backpedaling due to the realization that DHS was assembled too hastily and has too many disparate parts. Inspections activities moved to DHS upon the department's inception in March 2003.

"They weren't getting the resources they needed here," the manager said of the agriculture inspectors at his border station. "They're like the bastard child."

Agriculture inspection officials at CBP have complained about not having enough staff to conduct sufficient inspections.

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said another reorganization of the department could have "a negative impact on our security" and would minimize CBP's "one face at the border" effort that has been mandated by Congress. He said "rearranging the deck chairs yet again" also could affect morale.

Durbin and Feinstein cited a Government Accountability Office report (GAO-06-644) last year that highlighted a decrease in agricultural inspections at points of entry, mismanagement under DHS and growing U.S. vulnerability to foreign pests and diseases. The report stated that inspections at some points of entry decreased by as much as 20 percent from March 2003 to September 2005. Sixty percent of agriculture inspectors believed they were doing fewer checks, the report said.

GAO also criticized DHS' handling of dogs used for agriculture inspection and suggested that CBP improve its staffing and financial management models.

"When inspection rates at key American points of entry decrease, the threat of infestation dramatically increases," Durbin said in a statement. "We owe it to the American people to make sure our government is doing all it can to control the spread of invasive species."

Pest control and disease issues cost the farming industry $41 billion annually, according to the Agriculture Department. "Once these pests and diseases have entered the country, it is very difficult and expensive to control the damage," Feinstein said.

The bill was introduced March 14 and has been referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. A spokesman for the panel could not say when it will be considered.