Starving the Department of Homeland Security Watchdog During a Time of Growing Challenges
Little discussed during the many major political fights in Washington, DC, is the budget of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) chief watchdog agency. The Senate and House deliberations over the level of resources for the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) exemplifies how Congress must strengthen its oversight efforts.
DHS is well known as the agency that secures the nation’s borders, and is often mentioned in discussions of the President’s proposal to build a wall along the southern border. It handles airport and harbor security, immigration services, national firefighter initiatives, customs and border enforcement, and includes the Coast Guard. The Department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency was kept busy responding to victims of the summer’s hurricane-caused disasters. DHS handles major federal responsibilities, and has 240,000 federal employees and $41 billion in fiscal year 2017 spending with which to do so.
As with other federal Departments, its OIG audits its spending, helps determine the effectiveness of programs, and watches for waste, fraud, and abuse. Its work typically sees a return of investment of almost seventeen dollars for every dollar spent on OIG activities.
Unfortunately, President Trump’s budget proposal of this past spring aimed to slash the DHS OIG’s $175 million budget of fiscal year 2017 to $134 million for 2018, even as he proposed to increase overall DHS spending by $2.8 billion. Some of this increase will go to initiatives that will require the OIG’s attention, such as the controversial step of speeding through the hiring of 15,000 additional border immigration personnel. The OIG will also need to pay attention to bolstered efforts to protect federal computer and data networks.
Then there are this summer’s major hurricanes that struck the United States. During the past few months, Congress allocated tens of billions of dollars in new, unanticipated spending through FEMA, giving the DHS OIG even more work to do as it audits disaster response and recovery spending.
In 2008, Congress made an important change to the laws for OIG budgeting across the federal government. Previously, each IG had to rely on its parent agency and the Administration to communicate its budget needs to Congress. In effect, the IG’s budget could be held hostage to its parent agency. At the time, the Project On Government Oversight advocated for the need to maintain IG independence and require a direct link to Congress. The Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 included a provision requiring that the budget requests and justifications prepared by the IGs be transmitted directly to Congress. The Administration would also send its proposal and explain any differing views, giving a more complete picture to Congress of the IGs’ spending needs. The IGs therefore have a more equal footing with the Administration in fighting for resources to oversee federal spending.
The result this year? To the credit of the Congressional appropriators, the committees that write the first draft of the budget details, eventually to be adopted by the full Congress, have so far decided to add tens of millions of dollars to the DHS OIG budget proposed by President Trump. Unfortunately, at this point in the appropriations process this is still resulting in a smaller budget for the DHS OIG, with the House appropriations committee proposing $154 million and the Senate $173 million for fiscal year 2018. This year’s DHS OIG budget was $174 million. These numbers seem not to recognize that the overall DHS budget will increase by several billion dollars if the proposals of the House and Senate appropriations committees hold.
And what about the tens of billions in additional spending for disaster recovery approved earlier this year by Congress? Included as part of this year’s disaster spending package was additional funds for DHS OIG to increase its ability to audit and investigate the recovery efforts and the money going out the door. But in a sleight of hand, the appropriators in both the House and Senate just grabbed the additional funds from this year’s disaster spending package and used them as part of the earlier-mentioned levels of DHS OIG spending for next year, thereby not increasing the level of resources for oversight.
In his November Congressional testimony DHS Inspector General John Roth, who left the position last week, made the case for adequate resources. He noted that, “money can always be used as a weapon to diminish our ability to conduct the active and independent oversight that Congress and the public deserve.”
The fight for the DHS OIG budget is not yet over. Congress should take a more sage and sensible approach when it comes to our nation’s homeland security spending. Just as important, the same deliberation over OIG spending is happening across the federal government, from large agencies such as the Department of Defense to smaller such as the Railroad Retirement Board. Our nation’s elected officials should recognize that proper oversight is a critical aspect of government and act accordingly.