As Congress has been unusually busy on a range of fronts – health care, executive compensation, climate change, even “cash for clunkers” – one front that has been unusually quiet has been the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill.  Earlier this summer, both the Senate and House passed their versions of the DHS bill.  In neither case were there fireworks on the levels of spending or policy preferences included in the bill.  There weren’t even any major fights over amendments.  The fact that DHS is unlikely to have an authorization bill again this year means that the appropriations process is really the only major way Congress can direct the department.  The relative lack of controversy is worth pointing out a few reasons for the low-key bills and a few hints on what it means for homeland security more generally.

The reasons for the calm approach to DHS appropriations starts with the fact that the Democrats control both the department and the Congress for the first time, a set up that usually glides the appropriations process smoothly.  Second is the bipartisan history of the key DHS appropriators on both sides of the Congress: Representatives Price and Rogers in the House, and Senators Byrd, Cochran and now Voinovich in the Senate. Third is the obvious focus on pocketbook issues of more immediate concern to a populace worried about unemployment and wages and to their representatives.  Fourth is the general unease by both parties to wade into a contentious immigration fight right now – Republicans haven’t found enforcement programs to push above the Obama budget request and Democrats have been leery of cutting enforcement programs or funding any legalization efforts in the absence of a new immigration reform legislation.  Fifth is the general belief by Republicans that DHS has received sufficient funding to handle its core missions and a general sense that the progress made on homeland security under the Bush Administration means there are not gaping holes to fill right now – at some point, Republicans may find their version of “100% cargo scanning” and try to depict Democrats as unwilling to fund a needed security program but that hasn’t happened yet.

So what does this mean for homeland security, as the House and Senate plan to conference the two bills into a final product in September?  In most respects this is very good news for the department, which now has some certainty on funding levels and organizational structures for at least another year.  In part because of the economy and in part because much has been accomplished at DHS, the department can really operate under the radar for the time being.  However, that luck is unlikely to last.  At some point, this calm will be disrupted.   Whether it is by a terrorist attack or a natural disaster that puts DHS back in the spotlight, a emboldened Republican minority that finds a wedge issue, or the looming battle over immigration, the spotlight will surely return – it is just a matter of when.