Dems: GOP spending cuts may jeopardize the nation’s safety

Democrats and administration officials are charging that Republicans may jeopardize the nation’s safety as the GOP attempts to slash homeland security funding in its government spending bill.

The latest Republican proposal unveiled on Friday would decrease the funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by nearly 5 percent more than Obama’s 2011 budget request. The GOP's continuing resolution would maintain the current levels of two main areas of concern: the number of Border Patrol agents in the field and disaster relief funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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However, it would decrease funding for the federal employment verification (E-Verify) program by about 25 percent, or $33 million. And it would decrease funding for border security fencing, infrastructure, and technology by $350 million, while stripping FEMA aid to state and local programs by $783 million.

The move has pitted Democrats against Republicans as they fear that dropping much below the $43.6 billion proposed under the president’s 2011 budget request, which was never enacted, would rob the country of necessary assets to provide for its defense.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers this week that she expects the president’s 2012 budget, to be released on Monday, will not shy away from the fiscal discipline that both parties have advocated for, but that it would be foolish to unilaterally slash DHS funding levels back to 2008 levels, as some Republicans have proposed.

“The president’s going to be very careful in his request,” said Napolitano, testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee. “We are under the same fiscal discipline demands as every other department, and we ought to be.

“There are some places where I think we can eliminate redundancies and save and we’re constantly looking for those," she said. "But to simply say we’ll go back to 2008 without understanding operational impacts with this kind of work, would be probably be not what I would advise from a budgetary standpoint.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House panel, agreed. Comparing an earlier Republican budgetary proposal to 2006 levels, when the GOP was last in power, Thompson pointed to areas, including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and chemical and nuclear detection programs, that could suffer if they did not receive adequate funding.

“Our analysis reveals that thoughtlessly rolling back the Department's budget to 2006 levels in fiscal year 2012 would, by any measure, devastate our homeland security posture,” said Thompson in a statement.

A spokesman for Thompson did not immediately return a request for comment following the release of the latest Republican spending proposal. A spokesman for the committee’s chairman, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), also did not immediately return a request for comment.

Napolitano said that she and her staff have undertaken a lengthy procurement reform process in which they’ve been able to identify hundreds of millions of dollars in savings in how the department makes acquisitions that will likely be included in the president’s budget.

“It’s those types of things that really help find projects before they get too far along that are not really going to work or are going to add value to the process,” said Napolitano. “And we’ve literally found hundreds of millions of dollars that we’ve built into our budgets now, of cost-avoidances, using some of those plain old management techniques.”

The budgetary warfare has erupted as several lawmakers and administration officials are vying for stepped up levels of security.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the respective chairman and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, called earlier this month for an increased presence along the U.S.-Canada border after a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that a vast majority of it remains unprotected.

But both senators admitted that it was going to be difficult to fund such an increase in manpower, equipment, and technology under the current budget constraints. Lieberman said that in the wake of DHS’s canceling of the billion-dollar SBI-Net virtual fence program along the U.S.-Mexico border, perhaps there will be some off-the-shelf technology that can be employed along the country’s northern border.  

TSA head John Pistole told lawmakers this week that he would like to see an increase in funding to implement K-9 detection dogs in every major airport and rail station.

Pistole said that funding will also be needed to convert the existing advanced imaging machines at airports, which raised privacy concerns after it was revealed that the images they took portrayed passengers as virtually naked. After a trial run is completed with updated machines in the next two months, officials are hoping to convert the machines so that more generic images are produced – a process that is minimal in cost, said Pistole.