House committee passes DHS budget

The House Homeland Security Committee unanimously adopted its first authorization measure for the Homeland Security Department that would require greater deployment of antiterror technology and would create an assistant secretary of cybersecurity.

H.R. 1817, also known as the Homeland Security Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, would grant the administration's $34.2 billion request. The act was approved on April 27 after 13 hours of consideration and now heads to the House floor for a full vote.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), committee chairman, said the markup of H.R. 1817 was not just important for the committee, which gained permanent status earlier this year, but also for Congress. He said the bill was a product of much oversight and legislative activity as lawmakers focused on improving information sharing, risk assessment and intelligence.

He said the bill elevates the department’s critical cybersecurity mission “to its rightful place in the department's organizational structure” and contains provisions to expedite the development, transfer and deployment of anti-terrorism technologies to state and local officials and to the private sector. “Technology is our advantage in this long-term struggle against terrorism, and we must exploit this advantage at every opportunity,” Cox said during the hearing.

Among other things, the bill requires the department’s Science and Technology Directorate to establish a Technology Clearinghouse to identify, modify, and transfer technology that will be used by federal, state, and local government agencies, first responders, and the private sector.

Democrats had offered a more comprehensive substitute amendment that they said would address security gaps in H.R. 1817 and would have authorized $7 billion more for the department. However, the amendment was defeated 16 to 12 on a party-line vote.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said that gaps in H.R. 1817 include failures to address security for chemical and nuclear plants, the national energy grid, railroads and passenger trains, buses or first responder communications. He also pointed to what he views as shortfalls in border strategy, food supply protection and privacy protection.

Cox said he didn't necessarily disagree with the content of the Democratic substitute, but said the committee’s majority staff members did not enough time to review it because they received the 196-page document on April 26. But he also said the committee needs to live within a budget and that authorizing $7 billion was not realistic. He called the Democratic document as more of a "wish list" than about setting priorities.

Other Republicans said there would also be a sequential referral issue, meaning that other House committees could claim jurisdiction over homeland security issues if the Democratic amendment was accepted.

Republicans and Democrats should not get into a game of "Who can spend the most?" because that would send the wrong message, said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).

But Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) said he didn't appreciate being lectured to by the majority about the dangers of throwing money at a problem. Democrats have a right to say there should be more of an emphasis in every one of the areas, Pascrell said.

Democrats also offered several other amendments. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) offered an amendment meant to improve the department's management by giving the chief information officer direct line authority to oversee all CIOs of DHS agencies and other key information technology personnel within the department. The CIO would also report directly to the DHS secretary.

Meeks' amendment -- defeated 16-11 on a party-line vote -- would have also strengthened the privacy officer, provided more funding for the inspector general's office, provided collective bargaining to DHS employees and whistleblower protections and created an office of tribal security.

Republicans said they agreed with the content of many of the provisions, but said the committee’s majority staff had no time to review the bill. They said the bill could be discussed in the management subcommittee and introduced as a standalone bill.

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