Requiring fiscal sanity from DHS

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a major problem: its acquisition programs are unaffordable.

DHS spends billions of dollars on systems to meet its mission, expending over $17 billion in 2011 and $19 billion in 2012 on acquisitions alone. DHS plans to spend about $170 billion in the future on a variety of acquisition programs to develop new systems to protect the homeland. Each of these programs has a total individual price tag of $300 million or more.

Why does this matter? DHS currently plans to spend 30 percent more on its major acquisition programs than it has planned for in its five-year funding plan. Some of these programs support critical missions in protecting U.S. borders, screening travelers, improving disaster response, and securing critical infrastructure. Yet, DHS’s refusal to hold its acquisition programs to high fiscal discipline directly impacts their ability to meet its mission to secure the homeland.

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Repeated hearings before the House Homeland Security Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee that I chair have identified wasteful spending within DHS. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified that 42 programs had cost growth, schedule slips, or both. Of these 42 programs, 16 programs reported cost growth of $20 billion in 2008 to over $50 billion in 2011. That’s an aggregate increase of 166 percent.

Inspector General audits have found DHS mismanagement of TSA body scanners and canine teams; a $3 billion strategic effort to improve radio systems; and the conversion and modification of CBP and Coast Guard H-60 helicopters (costing taxpayers $126 million and delaying rollout for seven years). DHS needs to have the discipline to cut programs that fail to meet the mission in a cost efficient way.

Since 2005, DHS acquisition management activities have been included in GAO’s “High-Risk List,” showing that these programs are highly susceptible to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. Yet, despite having an acquisition policy that actually reflects important commercial best practices, DHS hasn’t followed its own policy.

To its credit, DHS has taken some recent steps to better enforce its policy and pilot an effort to prevent duplication and overlap across programs. Yet, many DHS acquisition programs still do not have the most basic of program documents – Acquisition Program Baselines (APBs). These are vital documents that DHS needs to measure performance and manage cost growth and schedule slips. In 2012, the GAO found that only 20 of 63 programs had APBs. Yet, the GAO found that DHS still planned to spend more than $105 billion on acquisition programs lacking APBs.

Senior DHS leaders have routinely allowed troubled programs to proceed without the assurance that they had the appropriate levels of knowledge to be successful. This puts American taxpayer dollars at high risk, and at a time when our nation is over $17 trillion in debt, this is utterly unacceptable. DHS needs to stop with the “get out of jail free cards” and put programs on notice: if programs waste taxpayer dollars, they will be held accountable.

If American companies operated their businesses the way DHS does, they would be out of business. Worse still, when programs cost more, are late, or do less than expected, it directly impacts our ability to protect the homeland from hostile foreign actors seeking to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities.

With so much at stake, DHS must do more to instill fiscal discipline, require accountability, and leverage best practices from other sectors of the federal government and the private sector to improve its acquisition management. In view of this, I introduced the “DHS Acquisition Accountability and Efficiency Act” along with Subcommittee Ranking Member Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) and Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas).

The legislation requires greater accountability from DHS leadership, codifies key management responsibilities and best practices, calls for every major acquisition program to have an APB, establishes a breach policy for failing programs, and requires a Multiyear Acquisition Strategy to guide DHS acquisitions while providing greater clarity for American businesses. I’m proud to report that on June 9th the bill passed the House of Representatives by voice vote.

I want to make sure DHS can justify every penny they ask for, and that those dollars are spent as efficiently as possible to minimize any U.S. vulnerabilities. I want to hold DHS to the same standards a business would face. Because DHS refuses to follow its own policies and because DHS does not have any statutory authority to truly hold its programs accountable, I believe acquisition reform is a crucial first step.

We have a precedent for such efforts under President Ronald Reagan’s leadership. In the 1980s, he worked with Congress to address these types of issues in troubled defense programs. DHS needs similar leadership from today’s president and Congress.

The era of blank checks is over, and DHS must think more strategically about its acquisition choices. DHS cannot waste Americans’ hard earned tax dollars on unnecessary duplication, and Congress must not give money to DHS without a clear acquisition strategy.

This legislation will force DHS to stop the “business as usual” approach and meet its missions to secure the homeland with more efficiency, transparency, and accountability. If the Senate takes its responsibility to govern seriously, it needs to move forward on this so we can quickly implement these much needed reforms.

Duncan has represented South Carolina;s 3rd Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Foreign Affairs; the Natural Resources; and the Homeland Security committees. He is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency.

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