This month will mark 10 years since the Department of Homeland Security opened its doors. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, forced us as Americans to fundamentally rethink the threats our nation faces and our approach to defending the homeland. As the 9/11 Commission Report documents, “Before 9/11, no executive department had, as its first priority, the job of defending America from domestic attack.”
Not since the creation of the Department of Defense had our government so hastily deployed historic levels of resources, personnel and funding in order to restructure the government. Almost overnight, a new federal bureaucracy combined 22 disparate agencies with over 200,000 employees under one department. Naturally, the creation of DHS was an enormous undertaking with huge management and programmatic challenges. Recognizing these challenges and the time it would take to transform the department, the Government Accountability Office in 2003 determined that the transformation of these agencies into DHS would be “high risk,” meaning the potential for wasted taxpayer dollars was likely.
Here we are, a full decade later, and GAO has again determined in its biennial report, which was released Feb. 14, that DHS remains “high risk” in implementing key management initiatives critical to mission outcomes and in the efficient and effective use of the department’s resources. As the report noted, serious deficiencies still exist in how the department buys technologies, manages its finances and data and deals with low morale.
However, as the immediacy of Sept. 11 fades, and as our fiscal burdens mount, we must ask the question: How wisely is DHS spending American taxpayer dollars? On Feb. 15, I held my first hearing as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency with this very concern in mind. Indeed, examples of DHS waste are rife. As former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore stated at that hearing, “Al Qaeda has said in their public statements that their goal is to collapse the economy of the United States. … If we waste money or carry out an ineffective program, … then we carry out the mission of Al Qaeda.” All the hearing witnesses agreed that DHS must implement a risk-based approach that guards against inefficiencies while realizing we cannot protect against all threats. Episodes where DHS officials focus on screening innocuous children and senior citizens distract from the department’s fundamental mission.
Make no mistake, I am thankful for and commend the men and women working hard every day to keep the American people safe. However, the department’s leadership must improve its management practices. Every dollar wasted in mismanagement is one less that could have been spent to help secure our borders, protect our airports and patrol our shores. In this difficult budget environment, many Americans question how DHS uses the resources entrusted to it. In 2004, DHS had a budget of $39 billion. Now, it has a budget of almost $60 billion, employs more than 225,000 people, operates in over 75 countries and is the third-largest federal agency.
Congressional watchdogs have issued thousands of reports with ways to improve the efficiency of DHS and save taxpayer dollars. GAO has identified billions of dollars in cost overruns that major DHS acquisition programs have incurred, and the DHS inspector general has identified over $1 billion in questionable costs.
A recent congressional investigation found that the Transportation Security Administration has over 3,500 administrative staff in headquarters with an average salary over $100,000. Further, DHS generously doled out $61 million in salary awards in 2011 despite hard economic times and reduced take-home pay for many hardworking Americans. A recent Senate report documented DHS employees using grant funds to pay a $1,000 fee for a conference at the Paradise Point Resort & Spa, where they participated in zombie apocalypse training. Other examples exist of DHS spending money on children’s mascots, overpriced law enforcement training materials and even bagpipes for Customs and Border Protection.
In November 2012, the inspector general identified significant challenges in how the department protects the homeland and manages its operations. The report noted difficulties for TSA in securing our airports, for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in identifying travelers entering the United States and for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in determining whether to declare events federal disasters despite spending $4.3 billion in response efforts annually. The inspector general also stated that much more work remains for DHS to efficiently manage its finances, consolidate old legacy databases to efficient data systems and improve acquisition outcomes.
Our country is over $16 trillion in debt. Numerous examples of departmental cost overruns, schedule delays and performance problems cannot continue in this constrained budget environment. Hardworking families have had to make difficult budget decisions and DHS must do the same. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano cannot afford to waste taxpayer dollars on programs and efforts that do not meet core mission needs.
In my role as chairman, I look forward to rigorous oversight to help ensure the department becomes a better steward of taxpayer dollars while effectively and efficiently protecting the homeland. The American people deserve nothing less.