December 29, 2014 by David Olive

By most objective measures, 2014 was not a good year for the Department of Homeland Security. Employee morale was still at the bottom of the federal government survey; a flood of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) created unexpected budgetary and personnel pressures; cybersecurity challenges, including the Sony hack, called their abilities into question; Secret Service mistakes continued to draw adverse publicity; and Congress refused to give DHS a full FY2014 appropriation – the only federal agency to be treated this way.

And yet, as we enter 2015, I sense there is a slight bit of subjective optimism that, under the leadership of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, things are getting better. Perhaps this “almost good” feeling comes from the fact that Johnson is keeping his promise to fill the leadership vacancies that had existed for far too long at DHS. And you know things are different than before when the Chairman of the House Homeland Security committee said, as he did in a December hearing to Secretary Johnson, that while he did not like the immigration policies of the Obama Administration, he did like the Secretary personally.

Congress still has to confirm a new Under Secretary for Management, and one hopes that will occur in the early days of the New Year – even with new Republican leadership in the Senate – and DHS has been without a Chief Procurement Officer for many months. Then there is the latest vacancy, that of the TSA Administrator. In what has to be a strange Washington, DC, reaction, there are not any rumors about possible replacements for the just-retired, amazingly effective and well-liked John Pistole. Deputy Administrator Mel Caraway has been appointed Acting Administrator, and the hope is that he won’t change directions from the pathway Pistole set.

2014 saw new leadership take their places at CBP, USCIS, ICE, Intelligence & Analysis, Coast Guard, S&T, Inspector General and NPPD. There have been numerous changes in cyber leadership within the DHS Cybersecurity and Communications Office, and further changes are expected in 2015. But this is to be expected, I suppose, as any presidential administration enters the final stretch of its second term. What should NOT be expected, I submit, is a lackadaisical approach by White House Presidential Personnel in filling positions of critical national significance. And this White House personnel office inactivity has raised a ton of questions about whether it shares the same sense of urgency that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson conveyed in his confirmation hearing last year.

With the change in political party control in the U.S. Senate, and with a renewed belief that there will be more procedural “regular order” in the U.S. House of Representatives, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader McConnell have another opportunity to “fix” the unworkable labyrinth of overlapping congressional oversight committee jurisdiction. The first order of business in 2015 is generally the adoption of the rules by which each house will govern itself in the coming congressional session. It is time that those rules recognize the wisdom in the 9-11 Commission reports, which demonstrate that convoluted congressional jurisdiction over DHS makes America less safe and secure. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is time for “Congress to Heal Thyself!

One of the areas where Secretary Johnson and his team have spent considerable time (and political capital) is in building congressional relationships. As dysfunctional as Congress may seem, DHS is still dependent upon congressional appropriations and authorization of its programs. Those relationships will be tested early in the new Congress as at the top of the 2015 legislative agenda of the House Homeland Security Committee plans is the passage of a comprehensive DHS authorization bill. I am told that Secretary Johnson and Chairman McCaul are committed to getting an authorization bill on the President’s desk. While Senator Ron Johnson, the incoming chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, has been relatively quiet on the subject, he told a cybersecurity newsletter that he anticipated a multi-year reauthorization process. Still, it is expected that he would be far more receptive to working with the House and DHS to get something off the Hill this year than the politically divided Congress of this past year.

One of the things to look for in the bill when introduced will be the treatment of the current DHS Office of Policy. If the office is substantially reorganized and the position is elevated from an Assistant Secretary to an Under Secretary position, it is believed the level of responsibilities will grow significantly. Another area to watch is how Congress deals with the number of direct reports to the Secretary and how the duties of the Deputy Secretary are delineated. Currently, there is way too much uncertainty in the responsibilities of the Deputy Secretary, and the mission often depends upon the personalities of the individuals holding the office. If Secretary Johnson continues in his course of remolding DHS into a structure more akin to his previous assignments at DOD, then it should be expected the number of direct reports will shrink appreciably.

Secretary Johnson has already changed leadership in the Private Sector and Public Affairs offices, and he has received positive feedback for doing so. A Republican-led Congress will want to ensure that the Private Sector office is effective and has a high level of input into the front office as an advocate for private sector companies, especially those that own and control critical infrastructure. Congress will also want to ensure that the Public Affairs shop is not used to promote a future political career, as was often alleged (and denied) during Secretary Napolitano’s tenure, although the ability to do so may sink to a level of micro-management that Congress should avoid, as a general rule.
But first, DHS will need to be given a full appropriation for FY14. The” Cromnibus” that passed in late December funds DHS until the end of February 2015. The Republican Congress will not let the White House Executive Action on Immigration go without challenge – and one of the first places this will be seen is in the appropriations process.

There will be a lot written over the coming 60 days about what it will all mean if Congress sends the President a bill that he will veto. There will be a lot of pressure on the White House to make recess appointments, if the opportunity arises, to fill vacancies for positions that the Republican Senate will reject or sit on. The potential for gridlock is high – and the potential for cooperation is also high.

Will the future of DHS and its congressional relations look like it did in 2014 or will it be different? It is a cliché that only time will tell. But as the New Year rolls in, I’m optimistic that things will be better in 2015 – and that will be a good thing, for the Department of Homeland Security and for America.