Department of Homeland Security faces more congressional scrutiny

Like anyone entering the preteen years, the Department of Homeland Security has its share of growing pains. It also has hovering parents, in the form of congressional committees, who check every pimple, examine every wart.

This week, Congress has been particularly inquisitive about the department, which marks its 10th birthday in November. Over a three-day period, six congressional hearings are examining the department, an exercise about as much fun as a teacher-parent conference when the student’s report card is decidedly mixed.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The House has vigorously scrutinized DHS for months, with a series of hearings that have probed serious issues and raised valid concerns. At times, however, especially when the department’s Transportation Security Agency is the subject, hearings have had the whiff of a partisan prostate exam.

The House Homeland Security subcommittees scheduled hearings this week on state and local partnerships with the DHS, challenging the TSA’s status quo, its expedited screening of military service members and a closed session on ammonium nitrate, which can be used to build homemade bombs.

“This is another routine week for the Homeland Security Committee,” said Chairman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) “We hold hearings; we hold a lot of hearings. That is our mandate.”

The Senate’s two DHS hearings are on emerging threats and the evolution of the department’s roles and missions.

“Over the course of the decade, DHS has made great strides to protect Americans where we live and work,” said Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The department deserves some credit, he added, because “we haven’t suffered another attack” like those on Sept. 11, 2001.

“As a relatively new agency, however, there is plenty of room for improvement,” he said.

“This being my last year in the Senate,” Lieberman, as much a congressional parent of DHS as anyone, said he scheduled the hearings “to judge how the department has done in fulfilling the large mission to better protect our homeland security” and to determine what the department is doing to stay ahead of evolving threats.

Among the problem areas, Lieberman cited ongoing — albeit improving — issues related to morphing 22 agencies into one department and its chronically low level of employee spirit.

“I continue to be troubled,” he said, by surveys showing low employee morale.

Republican troubles with the department, notably its TSA, have a much sharper edge, one that has been reflected in previous House hearing titles such as “Building One DHS: Why Is Employee Morale Low?” and “TSA’s Efforts to Fix Its Poor Customer Service Reputation and Become a Leaner, Smarter Agency.”

Fixing the TSA, for many Republicans, means nixing the TSA.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has used his panel’s perch to push for privatizing airport screening functions, now done, in most cases, by federal transportation security officers (TSO).

At a hearing Tuesday, Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation, hit a similar note when he called for “major reforms to the federal government’s role at our airports.”

“Letting TSA carry on the way it has for the last 11 years” is not an option, he said. “TSA’s poor conduct is sending a strong message to American taxpayers. That message is: TSA doesn’t care or doesn’t know how to best serve and protect the traveling public.”

TSA was not invited to send a representative to that hearing, but it did offer a mild response when I asked for a reaction to Rogers’ statement.

“TSA remains committed to providing the traveling public the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way possible,” said spokesman David A. Castelveter. “We continue to work closely with industry stakeholders and value their input as we evaluate policies and procedures to support our security mission.”

The union representing the officers was more direct.

Charity Wilson, a legislative representative with the American Federation of Government Employees, defended TSOs and pointed to revised procedures and additional officer training designed to speed the screening of children, the elderly and others.

The bottom line:

“They have succeed in their mission,” she said, “which was preventing another act of terrorism on flights originating in the United States.”

True, but that salient fact won’t, and shouldn’t, deter close scrutiny of the DHS, and the TSA in particular, as the department observes its first decade.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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