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Who Needs the Department of Homeland Security Anyway?

Why the case against a shutdown isn't a slam dunk.

US President Barack Obama speaks at the Department of Homeland Security about the administration's fiscal year 2016 budget request released earlier today February 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The $4 trillion budget that President Obama sends Congress on Monday proposes higher taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations, and an $478 billion public works program for highway, bridge and transit upgrades.    AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Department of Homeland Security about the administration's fiscal year 2016 budget request released earlier today February 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The $4 trillion budget that President Obama sends Congress on Monday proposes higher taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations, and an $478 billion public works program for highway, bridge and transit upgrades. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

With one day left until funding for the Department of Homeland Security dries up, Jeh Johnson has been pleading with Republicans to save his department from a partial shutdown.

That job might be easier if the 12-year-old department weren’t so widely derided on Capitol Hill and beyond for its size and clumsiness.

Misgivings about DHS, held by members of both parties, have been steadily growing in the years since then-President George W. Bush proposed the creation of a new agency assembled from a motley collection of disparate parts ranging from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the Coast Guard to the Secret Service.

To be sure, this week’s standoff stems from Republican opposition to President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, but the fact that so many Republicans do not view the department as sacrosanct is making Secretary Johnson’s life dramatically harder. Skepticism about the department also highlights the continued debate over Bush’s legacy as his younger brother Jeb considers a presidential run. The creation of DHS was one of Bush’s signature accomplishments, but it has come under fire from libertarian-leaning Republicans in the House and Senate.

On Wednesday, Johnson made an unusual appeal to conservatives by enlisting his Republican predecessors, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, in a news conference at DHS headquarters. The three men spoke in succession about the “critical” role DHS plays in keeping the United States safe.

“There are concrete, dramatic consequences for the homeland security of this nation if we allow the funding of the department to lapse,” Johnson said.

“Having a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security is going to cause a lot of pain and difficulty for American citizens,” warned Chertoff.

“Given what is going on in the world … we cannot afford to be distracting the men and women on the front line of our homeland security,” said Ridge.

But even the entreaties of the two Republican heavyweights weren’t enough to stop a GOP revolt against House Speaker John Boehner on Friday, resulting in the defeat of a three-week funding measure for DHS in a 203-224 vote. After the passage of a funding bill in the Senate, House leaders are now scrambling to find a way to keep the department funded with no clear plan in sight.

One reason Republican rank-and-file haven’t taken warnings about a DHS shutdown particularly seriously is practical: 80 percent of DHS employees are deemed “essential” to national security and would still show up to work in a shutdown — albeit without pay. All core functions of agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Secret Service would remain intact; the only people from the department’s 240,000-person workforce who would be furloughed would be 30,000 nonessential employees, mostly office workers.

But another reason for the lack of urgency boils down to one word: respect.

Forged in 2002 in the panicked aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the department remains the source of the least cost-effective spending in the federal government. Many outside DHS view it as a superfluous layer of bureaucracy in the fight against terrorism and an ineffective player in the ongoing efforts to handle natural disasters and other emergencies at home; FEMA’s performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was so poor that many from both parties called for the emergency-response organization to be removed from DHS and be allowed to operate independently.

Views are just as bad inside DHS, which suffers from the lowest morale of any major federal agency. In the past five years, turnover at the department was almost twice the rate in the federal government overall, and senior-level positions often remain unfilled for months. One key position, inspector general, was vacant for two years before John Roth assumed the job in March 2014.

The fact that the FBI, the agency tasked to “protect and defend” against “terrorist and foreign intelligence threats” is housed outside DHS indicates the department’s awkward and uncertain place in America’s national security bureaucracy.

“DHS’s biggest problem is that it is still less than the sum of its parts,” said Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a contributor to Foreign Policy. “The whole point of it was integration of homeland security functions, but it is still a divided organization with few synergies — so it has the problems of a big organization without the benefits.”

Even the department’s name — spawned from the German word Heimatland — strikes many as “creepy.”

“The name is very redolent of fascism and is an unfortunate misnomer,” Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) told Foreign Policy as lawmakers neared closer to a shutdown.

The department’s defenders say it is too often blamed for the failures of other arms of the government, such as the FBI or the State Department. They also say it is hopelessly bogged down by Congress’s outdated oversight architecture. A dizzying array of 90 committees and subcommittees maintain some jurisdiction over DHS — three times the number of panels that oversee the Pentagon. The amount of preparation required for the endless onslaught of congressional hearings and briefings inhibit the department from doing its actual job, according to officials.

When Foreign Policy asked Johnson at the news conference whether DHS’s problems on the Hill also reflect the department’s long-derided structural problems, the secretary said he “couldn’t disagree more strongly” and cited the benefits of bringing the disparate collection of agencies under one roof in a crisis situation.

“Just in my 14 months, I have seen the efficiency brought about by having in one department at one conference table the persons responsible for aviation security, border security, securing of our seaports and so forth, in dealing with various situations we’ve had to deal with over the last year,” he said.

Ridge, a DHS secretary under the Bush administration, told FP that the department is too often a scapegoat. “The department gets blamed for things over which it has no control,” he said, citing the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2009 failed bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit. In the two cases, he cited failures by the FBI and State Department in notifying DHS of the threat posed by the Tsarnaev brothers, believed responsible for the Boston attack, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who confessed to detonating plastic explosives hidden in his underwear.

But not everyone is sympathetic to Ridge’s blame-shifting.

“The irony in that complaint is that the very reason DHS was founded was to deal with the problem of insufficient coordination within the government,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If DHS failed to solve that problem, it’s unclear why it exists.”

Even strong defenders of the department acknowledge that more needs to be done to shore up support for DHS, but there’s very little agreement on how that should be done.

“In the last four years, they’ve come a long way in intelligence and terrorism and cyber,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the former ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, told FP. “But if they’re going to get where they need to be to be effective, they’re going to need a lot more money.”

That may be difficult to muster given the department’s spendthrift reputation. In 2002, the federal budget allocated about $20 billion to Homeland Security agencies. That figure rose to almost $60 billion in 2013 and continues to climb higher.

One of DHS’s most controversial initiatives is its grant program to improve the preparedness of states and cities, widely criticized for its lack of cost-effectiveness. Economist Veronique de Rugy highlighted an example of this in discussing a $557,400 grant given to North Pole, Alaska — a town of 1,570 people — for homeland security and communications equipment. “If power companies invested in infrastructure the way DHS and Congress fight terrorism, a New Yorker wouldn’t be able to run a hairdryer but everyone in Bozeman, Montana, could light up a stadium,” de Rugy charged.

Another concern is that the department, forged in a fearful post-9/11 environment, owes its existence to a wildly exaggerated understanding of the terrorist threat to the United States. As Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has pointed out, Americans are substantially more endangered by threats such as infectious disease, gun violence, and drunk driving than terrorism. In fact, the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in the United States or abroad are 1 in 20 million.

“This low risk isn’t evidence that homeland security spending has worked: It’s evidence that the terror threat was never as great as we thought,” wrote Kenny.

This outlook hasn’t benefited DHS’s reputation across other departments of the federal government. One official speaking to FP described the frequent occurrence of interagency meetings where DHS officials show up in large numbers and the Pentagon or State Department may have only one or two representatives. “It feeds the impression that they don’t have anything better to do,” said one State Department official.

Clearly, morale issues are a problem. In September, the Washington Post reported extensively on the near-constant turnover of top-level officials at the department due to a “dysfunctional work environment, abysmal morale, and the lure of private security companies.”

A top executive of one of those security companies was present at Wednesday’s news conference: Chertoff, the former DHS secretary and CEO of the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm. His company can afford to double or triple the $180,000 salaries earned by many officials at DHS, and it has successfully pulled away some of the department’s top talent.

Johnson seemed willing to forgive Chertoff for poaching skilled DHS officials in exchange for the former secretary’s public support during the budget debate. And Chertoff gladly stepped up on Wednesday to endorse the importance of keeping his former workplace alive. “I’m delighted to join with Secretary Johnson and Secretary Ridge [in a] bipartisan approach in saying, let us fund DHS and let them do the job that’s most important to all of us, protecting America,” he said.

Although a shutdown still looms, most observers expect House Republicans to cave in to political pressure and pass a “clean” funding bill by the end of the week. Either way, at a time when U.S. media attention on terrorist threats is at an all-time high, it’s ironic that a department dedicated to homeland security has such a hard time justifying its existence. And until it finds more solid footing within the national security bureaucracy, that problem isn’t likely to go away soon.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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