Preparations for shutdown proceed apace

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he was guardedly optimistic Congress will fund his agency and he won't have to furlough thousands of employees. He added, however, that his optimism is tempered and he is continuing down a pragmatic path to prepare his agency to deal with a worst-case scenario.

In a Feb. 26 press briefing, flanked for dramatic effect by dozens of first responders, Johnson warned that a shutdown would ripple beyond the Beltway and halt grants to local police, firefighters and emergency responders.

"There are just 34 hours left," he said at the 2:00 p.m. briefing. "Time is running out."

Johnson has been talking about the potential impact of a shutdown for weeks and warning that it would affect myriad DHS functions, from border security to cybersecurity. He said he would continue that steady drumbeat until a resolution is reached on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, DHS has been notifying employees of their status under a potential furlough and providing other practical information should the deadline pass with no action from lawmakers.

The status of a long-term funding bill for DHS or even a short-term continuing resolution remained uncertain as House and Senate leaders sparred over funding the president's executive action on illegal immigration and as they debated among themselves about tactics. The Senate appeared set to vote on a "clean" DHS funding bill decoupled from the contentious immigration measures.

The fate of such a bill in the more "rambunctious" House, as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently termed it, remained in doubt.

DHS has been preparing its employees for a shutdown all week, even as officials continued to warn of the serious consequences for its operations, including some of its cybersecurity projects.

In reference to the department's efforts to expand its Einstein 3 Accelerated intrusion-detection program, "a week we can make up. Each week that passes, it's another agency that doesn't come on board," Suzanne Spaulding, undersecretary of the DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate, told the House Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 25.

"There is no pausing, no slowing down in that range of actors' efforts to penetrate our systems and to do us harm," Spaulding told the committee. "Anything that hampers and slows us down creates risk for us and for the nation."

In a Feb. 24 press conference with his two Republican predecessors -- Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff -- Johnson said he has begun informally notifying DHS employees of their status under a shutdown regime. He said earlier in the week that 30,000 employees would be furloughed throughout the department, including headquarters.

"I remain optimistic that Congress is going to work this out," he said at the event. "But we have to plan, we have to prepare."

Other actions are going on behind the scenes. Reportedly, DHS CIO Luke McCormack reminded his staff in a Feb. 24 email message that no-cost counseling services to help deal with the stress of a furlough, including financial issues, were available through the department's employee assistance program.

Along with those efforts, lawmakers in the House and Senate are moving to make sure furloughed DHS workers receive back pay in the event of a shutdown. A group of Democratic senators led by four with significant populations of federal employees in their states -- Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia -- introduced legislation that would guarantee full pay for furloughed DHS workers.

Cardin said the legislation is similar to measures passed during and after previous government shutdowns.

In the House, Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.) introduced a measure Feb. 24 with the same goal.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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