Commentary and Analysis By James D. Hessman, email@example.com
Despite the many controversies that have made 2006 the most bitterly partisan election year in the last decade, the members of the U.S. House and Senate managed to enact several important pieces of legislation just before breaking for the hustings to face an angry and impatient electorate. Arguably the most important – for several reasons – of the bills approved by both houses in the last hours before the election recess was the fiscal year 2007 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The same bill, which provides $34.8 billion – $2.7 billion more than President Bush had requested – for DHS operations and activities in the fiscal year that started just last week, might well not have passed after the elections, particularly if, as many political pundits are predicting, the Democratic party gains a majority in either the House or Senate – or both. What makes the bill particularly significant is not the relatively modest increase in funding provided ($1.3 billion more than was allocated in the FY 2006 DHS appropriations bill) but the specific programs for which the money is to be spent. A total of $1.2 billion, for example, is set aside for “fencing, vehicle barriers, technology, and tactical infrastructure” along the U.S. southern border with Mexico. The House and Senate staked out clear but opposing positions during the past year about how to stop illegal immigration, with the Senate favoring a “comprehensive reform” measure that would increase physical security along the border but also permit the estimated 11 million illegal migrants already resident in the United States to remain and eventually apply for citizenship. Most members of the House, angered by previous reform bills that did not live up to their sponsors’ promises, opposed “amnesty” of any type and insisted on the strengthening of physical security along the border as the first priority. The DHS appropriations bill, which President Bush signed into law last week, also provides funding for an additional 1,500 border patrol agents and 6,700 new “detention beds.” The latter allocation is another signal that the former much-criticized “catch and release” policy is now dead and buried. Under catch and release, many illegal immigrants (the total number is impossible to determine) who had been caught by the border patrol or other law-enforcement agencies were almost immediately released under their own cognizance and, not too surprisingly, never returned to face a court hearing and, probably, deportation. WMDs and Seaport Security The bill also includes both a $163.6 million funding increase for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (to help meet its “critical priority of preventing nuclear and radiological terrorism”) and a substantial but unspecified amount for the implementation of various “risk-based” security standards for chemical facilities throughout the country “that present high levels of security risks.” Both of these allocations reflect an apparent congressional consensus that the risk of terrorist attacks involving the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) represents a clear and present danger to the U.S. homeland. Rejecting several proposals to transfer the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to another department, or make it an independent agency reporting directly to the president, the House and Senate conferees on the final bill agreed to keep the agency in DHS, as the president had urged, but – through inclusion in the bill of several internal guidelines and performance standards – to make it more responsive in times of major national disasters than it was last year during Hurricane Katrina. The several funding increases provided to improve the security of the nation’s land borders were matched by other add-ons to upgrade security at and through U.S. airports and, of greater significance, U.S. seaports, which previously were a distant third in line in the allocation of border-protection funds. The FY 2007 Homeland-Security appropriations bill allocates $8.4 billion for the U.S. Coast Guard, which is arguably not only the department’s most effective agency, but also the most cost-effective agency within the entire federal government. Included in the USCG funding account is $1,144 million for the service’s high-priority Deepwater program, a long-range effort to upgrade and modernize the Coast Guard’s present cutter and aircraft fleets. Final Grade Pending Maintaining security within the nation’s 361 seaports and along 95,000 miles of coastlines has been the Coast Guard’s primary mission since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. But the multimission service is still the world’s foremost lifesaving agency, and has numerous other responsibilities as well – the interdiction of illegal drugs, for example, and illegal migrants, throughout six million square miles of ocean considered to be “drug transit zones.” Also, the enforcement of U.S. fisheries laws, the protection of the marine environment, the setting and supervision of safety standards for more than 110,000 privately owned commercial fishing vessels, and a host of other duties both at sea and in port. In short, the service will still need considerable additional funding for the foreseeable future, but this year’s add-ons represent a big step in the right direction. In the long term, the overall adequacy of the FY 2007 DHS appropriations bill will probably be determined not by what else happens this year or next, but what does not happen – a new terrorist attack, to be more specific. Until then, the combined efforts of Congress and the administration must be graded “incomplete” – but better than was expected earlier in the year.No tags for this post.