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Hey Congress: Show Me the Money!

SHOW ME THE MONEY!  by Michelle Mrdeza, WHS blogger on Congress

Several months ago I attended a panel discussion where very smart people shared their insights on the “state of homeland security”.  Nearly 10 years after 9-11, they talked about what progress has been made and what more needs to be done.  While this was all very interesting (although I will admit I sometimes get heavy eyelids when the same old statistics are repeated over and over again especially after lunch), what people really came to hear was not so much what’s been accomplished but what more needs to be done –translation:  where’s the money going and how do I get some of that?

Lets face it, the room was filled with top executives from firms either currently doing business with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or those who are still trying to make their way in the door.  The question was not so much about what DHS has done to date but more importantly–where DHS is focused for the future.  Companies want to know where they should focus their time and resources in order to ultimately win homeland security business and help DHS succeed at its mission.  This is a legitimate and fair question.  I might also add the private sector –as a major partner in homeland security—rightfully deserves to know the answer [not that we’ll get it but it never hurts to ask].

After a lengthy panel discussion on future homeland security priorities, a member of the audience observed that Congress actually opposed one of the potential initiatives –an identity initiative that required the public to divulge pretty much everything about themselves except their blood type.  The question was “if Congress opposes this initiative, do you think DHS will overcome the opposition and move forward”?  The response –and this was from a former top DHS official—“I never really paid attention to Congress.  They never really mattered”.  Ouch.

To say I was shocked by the answer is an understatement.  Having spent 21 years on Capitol Hill, I felt as though I had been punched in the gut.  Congress doesn’t matter?  Wow.  That’s harsh.  But, okay, I’m a big girl.  I can handle the punch.  I know I was “just staff” but, trust me, even without my rose colored glasses, Congress matters!

Fast forward to today.  Congress is in the process of figuring out how to cut $100 billion out of the current budget.  Ok.  That’s not the right word.  Cut is way too gentle.  More like surgically remove without anesthesia.  There are hundreds of programs on the chopping block –programs that the new Republican House of Representatives find wasteful; problematic in one way or another; potentially not a federal responsibility; or ones that have outlived their usefulness.  Despite the talk that homeland security will be spared, trust me, it won’t.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at H.R. 1, the fiscal year 2011 continuing resolution just introduced in the House of Representatives.  DHS gets cut $1.1 billion below current levels and $2.1 billion below the President’s fiscal year 2011 request –nearly 5%.  By anyone’s standards, this is a hefty trim for an agency that was going to be “spared”.

It’s not so much about the rationale behind these cuts –oops I mean surgery—it’s that Congress has the power to make them.  Remember:  the President (AKA the Executive Branch) proposes and the Congress  disposes.  And lets not forget that unless the funds are actually appropriated (and that requires action by Congress), money can not be drawn from the Treasury.  In other words, great idea Mr. Program Manager, but if Congress hates it, it won’t get funded.  And if it doesn’t get funded, there won’t be a proposal for top executives to bid on.

Despite my shock, I indeed heard it with my own ears.  There are some out there who think Congress doesn’t really “matter”.  Don’t be fooled by the smart panelists.  The truth is, without Congress, programs can’t be funded.  Even good programs that don’t require giving blood.  Agencies –and top officials within those agencies—would be foolish to ignore the power of Congress and the power of the purse.  Especially in this era of $1.5 trillion (no that’s not a typo) deficits.

If you don’t think Congress matters, wait until you meet Molly Wilkinson, General Counsel for Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.   Molly is the guest speaker at next month’s luncheon.  And trust me, she might be “just staff” but she matters!!

UP NEXT IN MARCH:  THE HOUSE WILL COME TO ORDER (THE FISCAL HOUSE THAT IS)