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With outgoing DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano headed back to her one-time home of California, she is essentially trading one massive bureaucracy for another. If ever there was a proving ground for running a multi-tiered behemoth with legions of stakeholders, public accountability, and fringe elements of chaos and accomplishment, it would be DHS. It makes assuming the leadership mantle of the University of California system that much more understandable when you’ve already had to deal with pandemic flu, epic oil spills, attempted and accomplished acts of terrors, as well as cyber threats, hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, border issues and more. That doesn’t even include dealing with the lunacy of congressional oversight and some of the more ridiculous behavior she’s had to endure at various hearings.

I guess you can say Napolitano will be fully primed to deal with the esteemed and notorious faculty of Berkeley and some of the other arcane crusades and causes that California offers up from time to time. Her resignation though comes at an inopportune time, to say the least, as it could raise big challenges given several current factors in Washington. Among them:

Pending congressional recess and ongoing dysfunction: We are less than a month away from Congress heading off to its more-than-one-month-long summer recess. Napolitano said in a letter on Friday morning that she would remain in her position through early September. This should cover the Department through August, when Congress is not in session, but it gives precious little time for the Administration to come up with a replacement and for the Senate to approve their nomination. Given the difficult track-record of congressional approvals for Obama nominees, how quickly a successor can be sworn in is anyone’s guess, but DHS Secretary is not a position the country can afford to lose to the inevitable uncertainty and slow-to-absent progress that comes with an “acting” replacement. Our national security is at stake, which should trump political gamesmanship. Lest we forget, the first successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 took place less than 90 days ago.

A political “nuclear option” is pending: Speaking of Senate confirmation, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) has threatened to change filibuster rules for presidential nominees to the executive branch. This comes after ongoing frustration over persistent Republican filibusters on Obama nominees, which particularly angers Reid who allowed approval of nominees during the George W. Bush administration, which he likened to “eating shit,” according to Politico. His so-called “nuclear option” (because it could come back to bite Democrats someday when they are in the minority) would allow a simple majority vote to approve nominees. Reid offered to take his thumb off the red button if Republicans would but go-along to get-along and let Obama’s nominees move through confirmation. However, if the person nominated to fill Napolitano’s heels does not find rapid confirmation, it could be the final straw, thus heralding the beginning of the end for the Senate filibuster.

In the words of Sen. Mitch McConnell, Reid’s efforts to employ the “nuclear option” would end what tradition and decorum remains in the U.S. Senate on these confirmation issues and risk having written on the Majority Leader’s tombstone that they “presided over the end of the Senate.” It would be awful for any nominee or subsequently confirmed Cabinet official to take their office under these polarizing and difficult conditions. The DHS Secretary’s job is tough enough without having it further stained by political food-fights.

Immigration reform in trouble as it is: Napolitano’s exit is also not a good sign for the immigration bill, which has faced serious hurdles even before the Secretary’s Friday-morning announcement. The Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” managed to draft and win passage for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, triumphantly sent to the House as a real step towards reforming America’s troubled immigration system and potentially providing a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people living illegally within the United States. Yet, House Republicans have made clear they intend to break up the legislation into a series of more targeted bills. This go-slow and piecemeal approach to dealing with the immigration issue will be a messy, time-consuming effort. As prosecutor, state official and federal leader, Napolitano has a deep understanding of America’s immigration challenges, particularly with regard to homeland security. Her departure will make contentious and complex debates that much more challenging, as her expertise, reinforced by her authoritative experience and positions, will be noticeably absent when it will be needed most.

It’s bad enough that the Administration did not decide to deal with this issue in its first term when it had the opportunity (and legislative majorities), nor use Napolitano to her full potential in these areas. Instead, they spent their political capital in other areas and now will find their bench of expertise not as strong as it needs to be when hits and runs really count.

This is an eventful time of year: While DC is supposed to be quiet in August, we’re entering a notable time of year. As Napolitano is trying to wrap things up and pack for California and her successor is being identified, vetted, and prepared, we are entering the height of hurricane season. There can and always will be “bad days” in America in various forms, but in this particular timeframe, we have encountered the following notable and costly events: Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2005); Hurricane Rita (September 22, 2005); Hurricane Ike (September 13, 2008); terror attacks (September 11, 2001); etc.

It’s great to have Craig Fugate leading the FEMA Team and to have them in as good a shape as they are today, but it helps to have a fully functional seasoned executive in the front office of the store (DHS Headquarters) to deal with the customer demands of the White House, the media, the Congress and everyone else that needs attention. It’s a helluva time to make a leadership transition, but as mentioned, there are always “bad days” in America that need to be dealt with and the calendar will never discriminate when they occur.

A final thought. I’m sure Sec. Napolitano gave the White House a heads up her resignation was coming, but how it unveiled itself certainly gave the look that this was not how they wanted it to happen. Regardless, Napolitano’s tenure as the longest serving DHS Secretary is of note. There is lots to debate about her tenure. Some things I liked; others I didn’t (I will talk about those in subsequent posts). For now, however, she’s more than earned the right to leave when she wants to leave. Her job is probably the most thankless of any position anywhere. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t calling that requires you to have a hide thicker than a rhinoceros.

It’s a 9-day a week, 36-hour-a-day operation that is a meat-grinder mentally and physically. It’s also a sure guarantee that whoever takes the job will always get the blame for whatever may go wrong (big or small) and none of the credit when things go as they should. Napolitano has deservedly earned respect for how she’s done, and I’m grateful for her service and taking on the job. After dealing with some often not-so-civil Members of Congress, threats of terror, tornadoes, hurricanes and more, she should be more than ready for university faculty meetings at Berkeley and elsewhere in California. She’s coming from one helluva proving ground of four-plus years.

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