Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is someone I have not had the pleasure of meeting yet. But when that opportunity occurs, if it does, I really want to tell him how much I like what he has said about the men and women who serve at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They deserve our respect and, I believe, our praise for helping make America a safer and more secure place.

Secretary Kelly’s unabashed admiration for the work DHS does is one of his first talking points when he speaks to DHS employees, testifies before a congressional committee or is interviewed by someone in the media. People who know him from his service in the U.S. Marine Corps tell me that his comments are genuine and sincere. His reputation is that he simply does not say things he does not believe. If there is anything that will boost the morale of DHS employees, it is the knowledge that their leader has their back and is willing (indeed, anxious) to say so, frequently, in public.

There are also rumors swirling around the homeland security “commentariat” that when the Trump White House personnel shop sent DHS a list of names they had “chosen” for key DHS political slots earlier this year, Secretary Kelly sent the list back to them with a note saying that the list was unacceptable because he “wanted people who were competent.” I have no idea whether that story is fact or fiction – it may be complete folklore for all that I know. But the rumor adds to the overall belief that Secretary Kelly is the kind of independent thinker and leader that DHS needs.

Against that backdrop, I have to admit that I’m really perplexed that Secretary Kelly seemed to have no problem last week testifying before the House and Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittees about the recently submitted FY18 DHS budget. As both House HS Subcommittee Chair John Carter and Senate HS Subcommittee Chair John Boozman told Secretary Kelly, the FY18 budget the White House submitted was unacceptable – to a Republican Congress, no less.

Senator Boozman’s opening statement capsuled the problem he identified with the budget proposal:

“It assumes statutory changes to programs that Congress would almost certainly be unable to enact before the end of the fiscal year. From the proposed increase to airline passenger fees, to the significant reductions to assistance for state and local partners, to the failure to invest adequately in research and development, this budget fails to take into consideration many practical realities.” (emphasis added)

Judge Carter’s opening statement in the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, while generally supportive, called the failure to increase spending for cybersecurity and also cut FEMA-run grants to local governments “shortsighted.”

It is hard to disagree with that assessment, not only because the budgets for cyber and FEMA grants are under funding pressure, but also because of what has been proposed to happen to the Science & Technology Directorate – a Directorate that Secretary Kelly never even mentioned in his prepared testimony and that due to time constraints, neither committee had the ability to discuss in depth.

Included in the 339-page DHS S&T Budget Justification is language that spells out the proposed budget priorities and cuts the Trump Administration wants Congress to enact. Here is the summary language:

“S&T requests 431 positions, 455 FTE, and $627.324M of total discretionary funding in FY 2018, a decrease of $144.366M from the FY 2017 annualized Continuing Resolution (CR).

“S&T has prioritized Administration and Secretarial priorities within available resources based on the Department’s Integrated Product Team (IPT) process, which prioritized capability gaps from around the Department that require research and development, and the internal S&T Portfolio and Analysis Review.

“The proposed strategic reductions will ensure that S&T is rightsized for the future and allow S&T to focus on the highest priority needs of the Homeland Security Enterprise (HSE), such as border security and immigration technology.

“The total decreases by appropriation include:

  • A decrease of $44.397M in Operations and Support. This includes reductions across the three PPAs in O&S and the closure of the three laboratory facilities listed below.
    • National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center in Fort Detrick, Frederick, Maryland.
    • Chemical Security Analysis Center in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Aberdeen Maryland.
    • National Urban Security Technology Laboratory in Manhattan, New York City, New York and Oakbrook Terrace, IL (near Chicago).
  • A decrease of $99.969M in Research and Development. This includes reductions or eliminations of projects in the Research, Development and Innovation (RD&I) PPA as well as reducing the number of Centers of Excellence from ten to seven.

“To better align S&T’s resources to Administration and Secretarial priorities, S&T will not request funding for the following projects:

  • Chemical research and development.
  • Cargo security research and development.
  • Radiological and nuclear resiliency research and development.
  • Cyber education, outreach, experimental test beds, and research data repositories.
  • Eliminates most program funding for the DHS Standards program. S&T will maintain one FTE to ensure that DHS complies with Standards requirements.

“No funds are requested for Procurement, Construction, and Improvements in FY 2018.”

This is not the language of a congressional committee. Rather, this is the language DHS put forth to explain its budget priorities for FY18. Perhaps there are other places within DHS where cyber education, cargo security research and “research, development and innovation” occur – although if that is the case, Congress ought to ask for specific proof. In the absence of that showing, the sense I get is that the rhetoric about the overwhelming need for cybersecurity talent at DHS does not match the reality of the budget language DHS proposed.

The news stories about the actual use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the potential threat they pose if used in the United States, seems to be in contradiction to the complete elimination of funding for Chemical R&D at DHS S&T. Moreover, if three of the top five threats to the U.S. economy are based upon bio-related events, as is believed, the elimination of the DHS bio labs, and the resulting loss of scientific talent, seems to ignore the serious, existential threats to the well-being of the American people and the economy that makes us strong.

I am not suggesting that well-meaning people have made bad choices in setting the budget priorities. Rather, I am suggesting that DHS has yet to make the case for why its proposal should be enacted. As I said earlier, the rhetoric does not match the budget reality, and until it does, there will be the temptation to second-guess the basis of DHS’s FY18 budget rationale.

Of course, it does no good to say that the President’s budget is “dead on arrival,” as several members of Congress have stated recently. It is not enough to criticize the White House without coming up with a workable alternative – and that burden is fully on congressional shoulders now. It will not be easy, but it is essential that Congress get its appropriations work completed before the end of the fiscal year in September, and the calendar is not in their favor.

Secretary Kelly knows there will never be enough money to protect against every homeland security vulnerability, but we deserve a far better explanation of what they have chosen to prioritize than the one we have gotten to date.