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The New Politics of Homeland Security

In Washington, some things never change. There are and always will be vigorous debates about policies, programs and of course money.

What does change are the names and faces of the people who make many of those decisions, and unless you’ve totally tuned out on the comings and goings in town, here’s a rundown of some things you should know.

House Homeland Security Committee – Rep. Peter King (R-NY)

In case you didn’t notice, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) is now running the show for House Homeland. The ever-diehard New Yorker, King has made no secret about the issues he wants to take on or his willingness to take on all comers and critics to his agenda. He’s blatantly called out the New York Times for their less cordial comments on his upcoming Committee hearings on Islamic extremism and has not been shy on taking on anyone else who thinks he’s going about examining this issue the wrong way. King has always been a regular presence on the cable TV shows, and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly has gone as far declaring him one of the most powerful Republican’s in Congress, surpassing even Speaker Boehner.

One thing is for sure – the visibility of the House Homeland Security Committee will be a lot bigger than it has been for some time. Former Chair and now Ranking Member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) never seemed to make much of an effort to engage the media on homeland issues. That won’t be a problem for newly minted Chairman King. Whenever something happens, be it big or small, King will be there to talk to reporters about what he thinks. The fact that he makes the rounds on so many cable shows and is a known face and quantity is good, not just for King, but the stature of the Committee as well.

Despite some productive and informative hearings on resilience, intelligence and information sharing, and infrastructure protection, the Committee has not grown in the stature that it could have and should have the past years. King should change that perception pretty fast, despite the fact the Republican leadership FAILED to provide the Congressional oversight consolidation called for by the 9/11 Commission and just about any other thinking person and organization with an attached brain stem. The madness, inefficiency and ineptitude of the 120-plus Committee oversight appears to remain the standard operating procedure.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

One of the biggest shocks encountered by Democrats during this past November’s election was the defeat of 18-term Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN). Despite his long and distinguished career which helped establish the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and his other works to fund major infrastructure projects, Oberstar was caught in the Republican tide that swept so many from office. His departure from the Hill also means that the loudest voice calling for FEMA’s removal from DHS is no longer there. Despite the Obama Administration’s decision to keep FEMA in the Department, Oberstar never abandoned his crusade to make FEMA an independent, stand-alone agency. His hearings on the subject as well as his introduced legislation never went anywhere so maybe this issue has finally over but let’s face facts – in Washington nothing is really ever over.

What will be interesting to watch is the relationship that new Chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-FL) will have with House Homeland and other Congressional Committees. I fully expect him to exercise his full authorities when it comes to TSA oversight and infrastructure areas. Mica is no pushover either. He has been particularly forceful in a multitude of aviation areas, and his voice on these issues, whether he was in the minority or the majority, was one to be recognized and respected. Nothing will happen with TSA without his involvement and approval.

House Appropriations

The big news of course is that the Appropriations Committee has a new Chairman. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) is no stranger to homeland issues, given his previous service as the Chair and Ranking Member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. He has also not been shy about pointing out DHS’ missteps and inattentiveness to issues he cares about. A number of years ago, he zeroed out the department’s budget for its Legislative Affairs Division because he was frustrated at the lack of response DHS was giving to members’ letters and requests.

Given Roger’s elevation to the ultimate “cardinal” position of Appropriations Chairman, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) will become the new Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. As to the Minority side of the aisle, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA) has taken the top spot on the full Appropriations Committee, and it would appear that Rep. David Price (D-NC) will take the ranking spot on the subcommittee. Right now, the website for the minority side of Appropriations is dreadfully out of date with no new membership information or updates.

Cybersecurity

There is no issue more complex, confounding or confusing for Congress to deal with than cybersecurity. Like every facet of American life, there is no congressional committee that this issue does not touch in some shape or form. The jurisdictional battles on this issue will make the existing DHS oversight conundrum seem like a quaint, tranquil picnic in a meadow. Efforts in the last session of Congress fell short, but the foundations started by the Rockefeller-Snowe bill and the Lieberman-Collins effort provide a much clearer foundation of where things might start and the principles that have already been agreed to.

On the House side, there are some really smart folks grappling with this issue. The point person for Speaker Boehner is Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), but he’s got good, solid and informed partners with Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI).

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Senate Appropriations and the Person to Watch

While there may be some new faces to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (e.g. Sen. Coons [D-DE], Sen. Kirk [R-IL], etc.), the phrase “business as usual” is probably the best description to apply here. Sens. Lieberman and Collins and their respective staffs have been models of bipartisanship, collegiality and respect in an overall institution (i.e., Congress) has sadly been devoid of it the past few years. Even on those occasions that the Chairman, Sen. Lieberman (I-CT), and the Ranking Member, Sen. Collins (R-ME), disagreed on a nominee, a policy or a program, you never got the feeling that they wanted to smack a 2×4 over the other’s head. In short, they conducted themselves like adults, unlike some of the behavior other congressional hearings, House floor conduct, and Cable TV shows have exhibited over the past several years.

The person to watch on this committee (and in the Senate as a whole) is the senior Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu (D). She now has a real catbird seat as an “authorizer” and “appropriator” when it comes to homeland security. For the past several years, she has been the Chair of the Disaster Recovery Subcommittee, which has given her a great portfolio to stay on top of FEMA and other federal agencies when it comes to disaster issues.

To say she is familiar with FEMA and the various challenges the agency has had with these issues when it comes to her home state would be like discussing the relationship of the color white and grains of rice. She has made no illusions about wanting things done expeditiously and to make her point, she held up the confirmation of previous (and now former) FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson for quite a long time until things were corrected to her satisfaction. She’s not one to talk softly, and she’s not afraid to wield a big stick either. As the new Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, her voice and stick just got a helluva lot bigger.

A fundamental rule in Washington that never changes is whoever controls the purse strings gets paid attention too first. Sen. Landrieu has never had a problem with getting attention. Out of shear frustration with the bungled government response during Hurricane Katrina, she once remarked that she wanted to punch then-President Bush in the nose. Regardless of her boxing abilities, I still think she has become the person to watch in the Senate when it comes to homeland issues. The center of gravity has been, and undoubtedly will remain, with Lieberman and Collins, but her seat on Appropriations makes her very, very important.

DHS Veterans Land on the Hill

I’ve mentioned a lot of familiar (and soon to be even more familiar) names. A set of names though that DHS alumni like me find comforting on the Hill are a number of seasoned DHS veterans taking various positions on Capitol Hill.

Don Kent, who led DHS’ Legislative Affairs shop for several years, is now the new Chief of Staff for new Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson. As bad as the department’s leadership may have had it with all of the Hill hearings, briefings, and meetings they had to attend, Don as the Legislative Affairs Director had to play the role of air traffic controller with literally thousands of requests and demands coming in from 535 congressional members. Johnson made a great pick.

The same can be said for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who added former DHS Policy Lead Sally Canfield to his staff under then-Sec. Tom Ridge. Serving as Rubio’s Chief Policy Advisor and Legislative Director, Canfield’s experience with DHS issues, as well as health care matters and a litany of other issues, will serve Florida’s newest Senator quite well.

Amber Wilkerson Marchand, who previously served in DHS’ Public Affairs shop, the House Homeland Security Committee and as the Press Secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has joined the staff of new Missouri Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) as his press secretary.

Kathy Kraninger, who was once part of DHS’ Policy Shop, the Senate Homeland Security Committee and DHS’ lead for the Office of Screening Coordination, has also returned to the Hill as a member of the House Appropriations Committee staff.

These are just the few of the good people who I know have returned. I know of several others who are looking to make the leap there as well, but the thing that gives me great comfort is the experience that each of these people can offer to the members they serve and the staffs beside which they will work. There are already a number of capable and informed staff members already working homeland issues on the Hill. They all do a great job but having people who have been a part of the department and worked through some of its rough and tumble moments and can help explain to them what it is all about will be an additional benefit for everyone.

That’s another thing that doesn’t change in Washington – good people stepping up to do good work. God knows we need them. In the end, they are the ultimate balance to some of the knuckleheads who permanently reside on both sides of the political aisles.

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