“Senate Democrats remain united in their push to pass a clean DHS funding bill, while Republicans continue to hold the funding hostage in futile protest against President Obama’s executive action on immigration-pushing us closer to a DHS shutdown and putting American national security at risk.”
— Democratic Policy and Communications Center, post on Web site, Feb. 23, 2015
“There are a couple of times when … it was clear that nothing [to affect national security] was going to happen and the debate was just all about politics. This is a debate over funding a part of government so essential that if funding is not there, almost all of the employees show up anyway. They’re considered essential.”
— Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Senate floor speech, Feb. 12, 2015
The debate over funding the Department of Homeland Security is ramping up as lawmakers near a deadline to work through the gridlock. Funding for DHS is scheduled to expire Feb. 27 and the agency faces a potential shutdown.
Lawmakers largely agree that the agency must be funded in some way. But with four days until the deadline, the Senate failed to take up the House-passed DHS funding bill that would fund its operations yet still punish the president for his executive actions on immigration.
As negotiations continue, both Democrats and Republicans have made claims on just how much a shutdown would affect the agency. The claims above are representative of a range of comments — from warnings that it will endanger national security to skepticism that a shutdown would cripple the agency.
So let’s look at the facts. What exactly would happen in the case of an agency shutdown?
President Obama, former DHS secretaries and current secretary Jeh Johnson have been calling on Congress to fully fund the department, saying temporary measures or a shutdown would jeopardize national security operations. Some Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, have warned about a national security “crisis” that would hit at midnight Friday.
On the other end of the debate were comments such as Blunt’s and that of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who told Politico late in January: “In other words, it’s not the end of the world if we get to that time because the national security functions will not stop — whether it’s border security or a lot of other issues. … Having said so, I think we should always aspire to try to get it done.”
A look at what happened during the October 2013 federal government shutdown paints neither of those pictures.
About 31,295 DHS employees were placed on furlough during the shutdown, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). But about 85 percent of its more than 200,000 civilian and military employees were deemed essential to the agency’s operations and continued to work without pay. These “essential” employees were in the agency’s core functions that relate to protection of life and property, including border security programs, immigration and customs enforcement, homeland security investigations, Transportation Security Administration’s passenger screening, military/defense operations, maritime security and safety, cybersecurity and DHS intelligence operations. Some furloughed FEMA employees were recalled to work for emergency response operations.
About a quarter of total furloughs came from the management, research, training and operational functions of DHS. But these were smaller administrative departments, and they took a big cut to their staff of 90-plus percent.
DHS had a small percentage of furloughs relative to its size, and its core functions relating to national security continued. But the funding lapse shut down many programs, including non-disaster grants, federal law enforcement training, the FEMA Flood Risk Mapping program and the chemical site security regulatory program. The shutdown also disrupted procurement activities, which was a notable impact for a federal agency with the sixth-largest procurement spending, according to the CRS.
Johnson has released statements regarding the impact of some of the programs that were cut during the last shutdown. The non-disaster grants pay for numerous homeland security and public safety initiatives for state and local governments and law enforcement, according to a statement. These grants especially help local and state agencies that have had their budgets cut, and pay for everything from security on the trains and tunnels in New York City, oxygen tanks and masks for firefighter and law enforcement agencies in Denver, and bomb squads in Idaho.
As for direct impacts to the public: The E-Verify program that determines work eligibility for new employees was halted, FEMA stopped providing flood-risk data that insurance companies and local planners may need, and the civil rights and civil liberties complaint lines were shut down.
The CRS also estimated that ripple effects would result, mainly to its workforce retention and morale. For a department with an already low morale, another shutdown would create even more lasting workforce retention problems. And the current limbo doesn’t help, either; DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said “the uncertainty over funding for DHS is a cloud hanging over the heads” of the employees.
Democratic Policy and Communications Center spokesman Matt House said: “Whether it’s shutting down the domestic nuclear detection office or shutting down the training of first responders to respond to weapons of mass destruction events, it is crystal clear that a shutdown of DHS would negatively affect our national security. … The only way to ensure our national security is intact is to fully fund the Department of Homeland Security, period.”
Blunt’s office did not respond to comment, but we will update the post if it does.
The Pinocchio Test
Even if the department shuts down and its funding runs out, it would not affect core homeland security and public safety functions that are essential to national security. As shown in the last federal shutdown, the vast majority of employees were deemed essential to protecting property and life, and some employees who were placed on furlough were recalled into work for responding to federal emergencies.
Yet some offices within DHS with smaller staff were reduced upwards of 95 percent. Local and state federal programs and initiatives were no longer funded, and the shutdown halted research, procurement and other programs. Those programs may not be traditionally considered “national security” in the traditional sense of border security and counterterrorism activities but still support important programs on local and state levels. (The E-Verify program, for example, is a key fraud detection program for Citizenship and Immigration Services.) As it goes in heated political debates, the reality is somewhere in the middle. We award a bipartisan Two Pinocchios to exaggerated claims by both Republicans and Democrats.
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