Mixed Messages: House Appropriations Hearing on Homeland Security S&T

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Publication date: 
31 March 2004

If viewed from a bottom-line perspective, yesterday's appropriations hearing on the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate was, on the whole, positive. In his opening statement, Harold Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, commended DHS Under Secretary Charles McQueary for maintaining the necessary "disciplined system to guide homeland security research and development efforts over the long-haul." On a number of fronts, however, subcommittee members expressed frustration and in some cases anger about the directorate's efforts in the last year.

Indicative of how new both the directorate and subcommittee are was the venue for yesterday's hearing: the room usually used by the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, decorated with various photographs of farming scenes. Also indicative was the standing- room-only audience in this large hearing room.

The prepared opening statement read by Rogers was quite supportive of McQueary and his directorate. Rogers commented on the difficulty of McQueary's position, and echoing his colleagues in both the House and Senate, explained that "Science and Technology must come up with rapid solutions to strengthen our defenses against the near-term attack." Rogers also said that McQueary had done "a good job in getting your procurements on the street" to execute the vision of the directorate. As well, the chairman appreciated how the directorate had issued standards for emergency equipment that would be used by first responders. Rogers also had good words about steps that McQueary has taken to "allow private sector companies to compete for S&T contracts to develop and deploy critical technologies." Also receiving positive notice was the research supported by the directorate, Rogers saying "your Directorate is racking up many successful endeavors," citing surveillance equipment deployed in urban areas to monitor possible biological attacks, and research to protect commercial airliners against shoulder-fired missiles. Finally, the chairman praised how the directorate has provided timely information to the committee, suggesting that other DHS components follow this approach. With these supportive words, Rogers aligned himself with his Senate counterparts, as well as the House authorization committee that both held hearings earlier this month (see http://www.aip.org/enews/fyi/2004/029.html.)

Once the hearing moved past the opening statement and McQueary's brief opening remarks, the hearing proceeded along expected lines. Rogers' first set of questions concerned BioWatch, for which significant new funding has been requested in order that more intensive surveillance can be performed. McQueary explained that a biological attack is a major concern, in that it would be relatively easy to launch, and for which the impact on people and the economy could be enormous. Rogers pressed McQueary about when more of the survelliance could be automated.

In his set of questions, Ranking Minority Member Martin Sabo (D-MN) asked how DHS and the Department of Energy coordinate their work on BioWatch. He was also interested in DHS research on the screening of aircraft cargo, and vulnerability assessments of facilities such as nuclear power plants. Sabo asked, as did David Price (D-NC), about the proposed 50% cut in university research programs. Regarding this cut, McQueary replied as he did at the Senate hearing, explaining that it had been the subject of considerable debate with the Office of Management and Budget.

But then the atmosphere in the hearing room became much more heated when Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) began his questioning about the utilization of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is in the congressman's district. Describing the expertise that the laboratory has in the detection of nuclear materials, Wamp strongly criticized the directorate's relatively new approach of working with all of the national laboratories on a more equal basis. Calling the recent actions by one of the directorate's components a "debacle," and criticizing that unit's director by name, Wamp characterized the resulting policy as a political cave-in. McQueary strongly defended his employee and said that the "characterization was not accurate at all." Wamp pressed his criticism, saying that the laboratory's management had been told it would have $40-$60 million of research, which has actually been $7.4 million. The congressman spoke of pressure from other states, and said that this was a case of playing politics. McQueary stood his ground, telling the congressman, "Sir, I want to tell you that not a single other Member of Congress besides yourself has tried to bring pressure on me about how we spend money on the national labs." Also critical of the directorate's funding selection process was Tom Latham (R-IA) who expressed great frustration with McQueary's hands-off approach in the initial stages of the review process. McQueary defended the process, saying that a good proposal was required to merit further attention in the selection process.

Rogers was far more critical in his second set of questions. He derided the "sophomoric things" that airplane passengers are subjected to in security screening, and showed considerable displeasure when McQueary did not have satisfactory answers to how his directorate is evaluating the Transportation Security Administration. "I'm troubled, I'm irrate," the chairman said, when McQueary told him that he did not know the status of the review. "That's strike one," Rogers said.

In assessing the subcommittee's likely approach to the funding of the Science and Technology Directorate for FY 2005, more attention should be focused on Chairman Rogers' positive opening remarks than on the latter stages of this hearing. No one is suggesting that the threat posed by terrorism has decreased, and the general sentiment of Members of Congress clearly lies in favor of doing more and doing it faster. But yesterday's hearing also demonstrates that Members' interests now include both overall policy objectives as well as specific concerns.

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