The House Homeland Security Committee did something yesterday it has not done in the past several years, for anyone: it came out in full force for DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s maiden appearance before the committee. It was a positive performance by the new Secretary, who showed himself adept at answering questions in a sincere and forthright manner, even as his lawyer’s instincts kept him from falling into political traps some committee members tried to set for him.
It was clear Johnson was well prepared. When asked about cybersecurity legislation, or bills related to chemical facility security, Johnson responded with specific bill numbers in explaining his support of the proposals. There are few things a member of Congress likes to hear more than his or her own name and one of those things may be a Cabinet Member calling out the bill number of a piece of legislation they have introduced.
He also did not back away from challenges, even from members on the Democratic side of the dais. When asked, for example, by ranking member Bennie Thompson about Customs and Border Protection’s pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi, a decision strongly opposed by domestic carriers and the airline pilots union, Johnson stood firm in his belief that DHS needed to do more such pre-screening operations so that security screening would occur before passengers boarded airplanes headed to the United States and not after the plane had landed. Calling pre-clearance a “homeland security imperative” probably didn’t endear him to the pilots union, but Johnson sent a message to CBP employees that he backed their decision – something that is surely going to be a positive development in improving employee morale. His defense of Christian Marrone, his Chief of Staff, who has been the subject of intense media coverage from the Washington Times, will also send a message to DHS employees who have too often found their leaders willing to throw the employees under the proverbial political bus.
Johnson covered a lot of territory in answering questions from Committee members who, in the past, have not been active participants in public hearings. While I have not kept track of attendance, this was the first committee hearing in several years where I recall Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) showing up to ask questions. Being from Texas, the former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee peppered Johnson with questions about DHS releasing illegal aliens who have criminal charges and/or convictions. Although Rep. Smith is the current chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, he didn’t ask a single question about science or technology. No wonder the folks at DHS S&T feel neglected.
Secretary Johnson did not mince words when he talked about the difficulties of leading a department that is subject to more than 100 committees and subcommittees of Congress but was slightly coy (if not almost deferential) in suggesting that he would not tell Congress how to do its job – which was exactly what he was doing, a message that was not lost on Chairman Mike McCaul nor on Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, both of whom noted the necessity of solving the congressional oversight mess.
There are lots of problems that Secretary Johnson must deal with during his tenure at DHS. There will be many more hearings where he will have to give more detailed answers and endure more partisan inquiries. But for now, he is off to a very good start, and that is a breath of fresh air after the highly politicized atmosphere that surrounded former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.