Lawmakers Squabble Over DHS Staffing Levels, IG's Credibility
Republicans say Biden's border approach is causing employees' morale to tank, though Democrats say they are using faulty data.
Lawmakers on Tuesday sparred over the federal staffing levels at the border and the credibility of the internal watchdog who flagged the matter as problematic, with Republicans calling the personnel issues a “systemic crisis” and Democrats saying the data underlying that assumption was fundamentally flawed.
Some members of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s border panel decried the Biden administration for deploying Homeland Security Department officers and agents on a rotating basis to the southwest border to supplement personnel there, a practice that has been ongoing under multiple presidents. Those lawmakers said the tactic was causing morale to plummet and cratering employees’ capacity to carry out their law enforcement duties. Republicans on the subcommittee cited a report last month from DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, who testified before the panel, which found that increasing workloads and low morale could soon cause a crisis stemming from higher turnover and retirements.
Democrats noted the report relied heavily on a survey of 9,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection employees that, by the IG’s own admission, was not representative of the overall workforce and highlighted “cherry-picked responses.” They also frequently chided Cuffari for the various allegations against him for mismanagement of his office and for declining to fully cooperate with an investigation into his actions.
“It is unacceptable that the individual entrusted to investigate fraud, waste and abuse in our third-largest executive department believes that he is above the law, believes that his office is above scrutiny from Congress and believes that he is beyond reproach for his own potential perpetrations of fraud, waste and abuse,” said Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., the ranking member of the National Security, Border and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that held Tuesday’s hearing.
Republicans frequently defended Cuffari, with Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., who chairs the panel, saying he was glad Cuffari was in the job and Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., calling the IG “one of the most honorable men I have ever met.” Grothman praised Cuffari for conducting the audit and called the workforce issues a “systemic crisis.”
The IG said he initiated the review after hearing from senior staff about morale issues impacting the workforce. He said the frequent and repeated deployments of 30-60 days are causing “turmoil” both for department operations and for employees and their families. He said some of the deployments were voluntary and in other cases, management employees were “voluntold.” The agents and officers frequently said they felt they were being sidetracked from engaging in their law enforcement duties in favor of providing care and welfare services to detained migrants. As recommended in the IG’s report, Cuffari said DHS should improve its staffing models so it can use its resources “to the most effective benefit to the organization."
“To meet mission requirements, DHS implements stopgap measures like increased overtime and temporary details that exacerbate staffing challenges in the long term,” Grothman said.
Higgins added the strategy is taking a severe toll on the workforce.
“I think it's obvious that the system of moving people down there has been detrimental to health and well being of our agents,” he said.
During the first seven months of fiscal 2022, CBP spent $400 million on overtime costs for field operations officers. The average officer was set to earn 14 days worth of overtime for the year. Approximately nine in 10 ICE and CBP respondents to the IG’s survey said their field locations are not adequately staffed to handle periods of unusually high migrant encounters. Seven in 10 CBP personnel and six in 10 ICE employees said the same is true even during normal operations.
Congress funded an additional 300 Border Patrol agents as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill—marking the first such increase in more than a decade—and Biden requested an additional 350 in his fiscal 2024 budget. Congress recently agreed to freeze spending for federal agencies in fiscal 2024, though Republicans are likely to push for an increase to DHS at the expense of other agencies Democrats might prioritize. One Republican, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., said hiring was not the solution, as DHS would “never have enough people.”
“The solution is to stop the people from coming across illegally,” Perry said. “That's the solution. To say that the solution is actually to hire more people belies the fact that people are coming across illegally because of the policies of my friends on the other side of the aisle.”
Throughout the hearing, Democratic lawmakers focused on the ongoing allegations Cuffari is facing.
“The relationship of trust that we have had with other inspectors general, we have not had that with you,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., based on 22 years on the oversight committee.
“The concerns about this witness go on and on,” Garcia said. He added that "rather than cooperate with legitimate oversight efforts," Cuffari filed a lawsuit in April against the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency “in a desperate attempt to escape scrutiny or consequences."
In the lawsuit, Cuffari and other top DHS IG officials said CIGIE’s investigations have “had a chilling effect on their work and actions.”
Garcia also highlighted a letter the Project on Government Oversight (a nonprofit that has been calling for Cuffari’s removal for a while now) published in September 2022 from an unknown number of anonymous employees at the DHS IG office imploring President Biden to remove Cuffari, citing the workforce’s lack of trust. Garcia and other Democratic lawmakers additionally chided Cuffari for reported ethical concerns earlier in his career, and allegations that he delayed and mishandled reports and investigations on sexual assault and the Capitol attack, and that he blocked congressional oversight attempts
The DHS IG office has previously pushed back on these allegations and Cuffari defended his record on Tuesday. “Since his confirmation IG Cuffari has provided every OIG employee multiple opportunities to meet with him and other senior leaders, in small groups,” a DHS OIG spokesperson told Government Executive last year when asked about the letter. “The feedback employees have provided during those sessions has been overwhelmingly positive and useful to continue to improve our operations.”