Homeland Security budget puts administration on collision course with lawmakers, airlines

By Chris Strohm

The Homeland Security Department's proposed budget for 2006 aims to consolidate management efforts while boosting the government's surveillance and detention powers, but some provisions drew quick criticism this week that threatens to derail the administration's overall goals.

The department avoided the budget ax that chops or eliminates about 150 domestic spending programs. Instead, the administration requests $41.1 billion for DHS in 2006, which is a 7 percent increase over the fiscal 2005 budget.

Some provisions of the proposed budget, however, place the administration on a collision course with the nation's airlines and airports over aviation security funding, and with lawmakers over decreased grant funding for first responders.

The budget would create a new Office of Screening Coordination and Operations, which would take over credentialing and vetting programs now administered by the Transportation Security Administration. Programs the new office would administer include the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system, Secure Flight, Registered Traveler, the Transportation Worker Identification Credentialing program, Crew Vetting, Credentialing Start-up and the Alien Flight School program.

"We must continue to rise to new levels of protection and look for innovative ways to consolidate and integrate existing security functions to more effectively serve our overall mission. And this year's budget will ensure that we do just that," acting DHS Secretary James Loy said Monday while releasing the budget.

Research and development activities would also be consolidated into the department's Science and Technology Directorate. It would take over activities now performed by TSA, the Coast Guard, the bureau of Customs and Border Protection and the Directorate of Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection.

"This consolidation will bring the scientific and engineering personnel and other [resources] of the department under a single accountable authority," the department said.

Overall, TSA stands to lose the most programs and personnel and would essentially be left with the main job of managing airport screening operations, raising questions about the future of the agency.

The budget also gives DHS the authority to conduct its own background security checks, which is currently done by the Office of Personnel Management.

Funding for management offices is also boosted in the budget.

Total funding for departmental management and operations increases from $525 million in 2005 to $665 million in 2006. For the office of the secretary and executive management team, funding more than doubles, from $85 million to $196 million. Funding for management of the Directorate of Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection goes from $132 million to $204 million.

With regard to capabilities, the budget boosts the department's funding for surveillance and detention operations.

The Coast Guard gets the largest single slice of DHS funding with a proposed budget of $8.1 billion, which is almost $600 million more than in 2005. The funding would provide for a plethora of maritime security and surveillance efforts, including a major fleet modernization program, the purchase of new boats and sensors, and arming helicopters.

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which is responsible for protecting the nation's borders and ports of entry, would get about $6.7 billion in 2006, which is about $370 million more than in 2005.

CBP would get about $32 million to deploy and maintain a long-range radar that monitors air traffic along the borders. The bureau also would spend about $51.1 million on electronic surveillance along the southern and northern land borders, including the use of air, ground and marine surveillance technologies.

The bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is the largest investigative arm of the department, would get about $4.4 billion in 2006, which is $519 million more than in 2005. Therefore, ICE actually gets the largest funding increase of any agency within the department

The ICE budget would increase funding for detention and removal activities by about $114 million, including money for additional detention beds. The bureau's Office of Investigations would get a $105 million increase to conduct international and domestic operations.

About $9 million in new spending would expand the bureau's ability to identify, locate and apprehend fugitive aliens. An additional $5 million would place agents strategically within federal, state and local prisons to identify and remove criminal aliens.

Some provisions in the proposed budget, however, were immediately criticized.

In the area of transportation security, the administration appears to clash with the nation's airlines and airports.

For example, the budget proposes to increase fees paid by airline passengers on a typical one-leg ticket from $2.50 to $5.50. For passengers traveling multiple legs on a one-way trip, the fee would increase from $5 to $8.

The Air Transport Association, the largest trade organization of domestic airlines, blasted the proposed hike, calling it a tax on travelers and, therefore, a tax on airlines.

James May, ATA president and CEO, said the fee hike would undermine the economic stability of the commercial aviation industry, jeopardize airline jobs and hurt local air service to small- and medium-size communities.

The department also wants airlines to pay more to cover aviation screening expenses, said Tom Blank, TSA's associate administrator. Since 2001, airlines have paid about $350 million per year for the Aviation Security Infrastructure Fee. Blank says airlines should be paying about $750 million a year, which is what the airlines estimated they spent on aviation security in 2000, before the 9/11 attacks.

The government is counting on the passenger fee and the screening fee together to cover 91 percent of aviation screening operations in 2006, Blank said. Now that figure is about 58 percent, he added.

The 2006 budget gives the government's comptroller authority to collect and review all information and documents from air carriers, airport authorities and contractors to determine costs for screening passengers and property. An audit is expected in April, Blank said.

Another contentious issue between TSA and airports is the amount of funding the government will provide to cover airport security improvements. The 2003 FAA Reauthorization Act ordered TSA to cover at least 90 percent of costs for security improvements at medium and large airports. TSA has said it will only cover 75 percent. The 2006 budget states that TSA will not reimburse medium or large airports more than 75 percent.

It also looks like the administration is in for a fight on Capitol Hill over grant funding for state and local governments. The 2006 budget allocates $3.6 billion in homeland security grants, about $420 million less than Congress approved for 2005.

The reduction brought a sharp rebuke from both Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee this week, who said the cuts will shortchange the nation's first responders.

The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on grant funding Thursday.

Marc Short, a spokesman for the department's Office of Domestic Preparedness, said the 2006 budget for grant funding is the same as the administration requested for 2005. The additional funding in 2005 was allocated by Congress, he said.

"The department today is much better at identifying risks and therefore much better at allocating first responder grants," Short said. "Therefore, the president's budget, which maintains funding at the FY-05 level, will be even more effective."

The department also wants to roll grant funding for critical infrastructure into a new Targeted Infrastructure Protection program, which would get $600 million in 2006. States could apply to TIP for funds to secure ports, bus and rail transportation, chemical plants, nuclear facilities, power plants and dams.

Critics note, however, that the department wants to spend about $5 billion specifically on aviation security in 2006, while leaving other areas in need of security to compete for the $600 million funding in the TIP program.

Short said the department has not yet defined guidance for how TIP funding could be spent, given that Congress might change the program.