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Someone needs to buy Janet Napolitano a beer.  Or at least give her a double of whatever she wants.  After two consecutive days on Capitol Hill testifying in front of four different Congressional Committees, she’s earned it. In defending the Administration’s proposed 2011 budget, she took on a whole set of bipartisan punches and barbs from an array of political players who weren’t exactly happy with what she was trying to sell them.

While affording her the professional respect that she and her office deserves, expressing their thanks for her appearance before the respective Committees, and for her service to the nation, Congressional Members gave her a range of wagging fingers, raised voices, sneers, wide-eyed stairs, sighs and other behaviors that moms and grade school teachers would be annoyed at. This is of course the expected norm for any budget hearing, or for that matter, any other Congressional hearing for a government official. Congress is supposed to ask tough questions. The Members of the 111th Congress lived up to that charge, but their questions and often-rambling soliloquies leading up to the actual questions revealed a lot. Here’s what we learned:

From a bipartisan perspective:

  • Proposed personnel cuts to the U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol (since amended by the Administration) were met with universal disdain;
  • The elimination and consolidation of a number of existing grant programs was an absolute non-starter for almost all of them; and,
  • The Administration’s proposal for $200M in the DHS budget to pay for terror trials in the United States is a “no way in hell” option.

From a Majority perspective:

  • There was incredible frustration expressed by the Majority Democrats that the Administration was not taking the legislated 100 percent Cargo Screening Mandate more seriously. In fact, you might even go as far to say that they felt Sec. Napolitano was blowing it off in favor of her own prescribed remedies.
  • Almost equally as frustrated were senior Democrats (Rep. Nita Lowey [D-NY] and Rep. Bennie Thompson [D-MS] who the Administration had not moved forward on implementing collective bargaining for screeners at TSA. I thought the admonition by House Homeland Chairman Thompson to Sec. Napolitano that “you know we voted on this? Don’t you?!” was very telling. Probably more telling was the lack of a definitive answer by the Secretary in responding to him on whether the Administration would allow collective bargaining to actually go forward. [I bet the unions are going nuts on that one.]
  • They also weren’t particularly thrilled to see that contractors outnumbered civil servants at DHS either. [Why this fact is considered shocking is beyond me.  It’s been that way for years.]

From a Minority perspective:

  • The Republicans stressed their objections about real (or perceived) cuts to border patrol and U.S. Coast Guard operations or any other measure they felt could leave their own Districts (or the nation) vulnerable to attack or disaster.
  • They also weren’t too happy to see the proposed numbers for personnel number increases to DHS’ headquarters operations either. While the Obama Administration is seeking to improve the number of people working in its management operations to improve its procurement and other operations, the GOP members saw an easy target to blast at the expense of proposed cuts to the Department’s operational elements.

Final Observation

While the subject of redundant, excessive and rampant Congressional oversight of DHS has been long raised in individual speeches by some members of Congress, Sec. Napolitano (her predecessors), 9/11 Commissioners, reporters, bloggers and others, these four hearings started to show the bubbling frustration that this issue is presenting.

While Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, upbraided Sec. Napolitano for the poor turnaround that DHS had given to reports that Congress wanted, she admirably defended her Department by sharing the eye-popping numbers they were asking for.

Later in the same afternoon, another Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), asked her to give the issue of consolidating homeland security oversight by Congress a “political lift” and encouraged her to speak to House Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid about the subject.  The Secretary responded that the Administration had raised the issue before and would continue to do so. Rep. Rogers then pressed if she had spoken to the President about the subject. She shared that she had but went no further than acknowledging the conversation.

This is the first I can recall that the Secretary has mentioned this subject and the President’s name in the same sentence. We can only hope that at some point, he will back up Sec. Napolitano and deliver on completing all of the 9/11 Commission recommendations.

Until then, I hope someone buys her a beer.  She earned it this week.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More