Homeland Security Issues in the Post-Shutdown Environment

  • Oct 29, 2013

    Federal budget and debt ceiling issues dominated the White House and congressional priority lists for the last few weeks. As the nation begins to move past the most recent government shutdown, attention will remain on budget issues as Congress considers appropriations—whether through continuing resolutions that will keep funding levels constant for months at a time or longer-term spending bills that are favored by the executive branch. As federal departments and agencies return to regular work hours, they will need to consider how the ongoing tensions between Democratic and Republican elected officials may impact their issue areas. These tensions have certainly impacted important homeland security issues that saw significant congressional and public interest before the shutdown, such as immigration reform, border security, and filling many key Department of Homeland Security (DHS) vacancies.

    Q1: What is the future of immigration reform?

    A1: Shortly after reopening the federal facilities on October 17, President Obama identified a few legislative priorities for the remaining congressional session (roughly 18 legislative days in the House of Representatives and 40–46 in the Senate). Among these priorities, he said that immigration reform “can and should get done by the end of the year.” However, especially in the post-shutdown era, there are many obstacles to achieving bipartisan immigration reform.

    Immigration reform proposals stalled this summer when the Senate passed a sweeping overhaul (Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, or S. 744) that included border security and employer verification measures, as well as a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Instead of considering the Senate-passed bill, House Republicans favored a “step by step” process focused on smaller individual pieces of legislation addressing border security (Border Security Results Act of 2013, or H.R. 1417), a guest worker program (Agricultural Guestworker Act, or H.R. 1773), and employer verification measures (Legal Workforce Act, or H.R. 1772). The major point of contention between the two parties is the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, pejoratively termed “amnesty” by some Republicans, which is a principle that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said will be integral to Senate support for an immigration reform bill.

    Even before the shutdown, experts were predicting that immigration reform was unlikely to pass until after the 2014 Republican primaries. Now, the tense post-shutdown climate could indicate a greater unwillingness to compromise. Representative Raúl Labrador (R-ID), a supporter of immigration reform and former member of a bipartisan House group pushing the legislative effort, said that the shutdown has left House Republicans with no incentives to negotiate with the president on immigration reform. However, Harry Reid maintains that if S. 744 were allowed on the House floor, it would pass with a bipartisan majority. Certainly, the productivity of the remainder of this legislative session will depend largely on the success of budget negotiations; if there is an appropriations stalemate, Congress is unlikely to review any other major issues, including immigration reform.

    Q2: How did DHS weather the shutdown, and what challenges does the department face moving forward?

    A2: During the shutdown, the Department of Homeland Security’s contingency plan ordered the furlough of 13 percent of its workforce. DHS deemed employees “exempt” or “nonexempt” in accordance with the Antideficiency Act (P.L. 97-258 rev.), requiring “exempt” employees to work during the funding hiatus. Essential employees were defined as those vital to the continuing of operations or those who would be recalled in the event of an emergency; each individual DHS component designated its own set of essential employees. The table below shows the breakdown of expected furloughs for several major DHS agencies according to the department’s pre-shutdown contingency plan.

    DHS Agency

    # of Employees

    # of Furloughed Employees

    # of Essential or Recalled Employees*

    Coast Guard

    49,698

    5,962 (12%)

    43,736 (88%)

    Customs and Border Protection

    59,561

    6,888 (11.5%)

    52,673 (88.5%)

    Federal Emergency Management Agency

    14,729

    3,261 (22%)

    11,468 (78%)

    Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    19,810

    4,016 (20%)

    15,794 (80%)

    Transportation Security Administration

    59,282

    4,071 (7%)

    55,211 (93%)

    Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Procedures Relating to a Federal Funding Hiatus,” September 27, 2013.
    * For the Coast Guard, Acting Secretary Rand Beers recalled the majority of employees during the second week of the shutdown under the Pay Our Military Act (P.L. 113-39). For the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an estimated 3,261 employees were originally furloughed, though some were recalled on October 3 to support efforts regarding Hurricane Karen.

    In addition to furloughs, DHS must address instability in its most senior ranks. President Obama recently nominated former Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson to replace former secretary of homeland security Janet Napolitano, who departed last month. This nomination has met criticism from conservative Republicans who consider Johnson a friend to the president instead of a seasoned homeland security professional. Nonetheless, it is expected that Johnson will be confirmed by the Senate, though no date has been set for his confirmation hearing.

    In addition to the secretary position, there are multiple vacancies in DHS headquarters. A September meeting of the House Committee on Homeland Security noted that 18 of 40 top posts were vacant, possibly contributing to low morale and a leadership vacuum. Even more positions are only temporarily filled, like deputy secretary, chief of staff, director of immigration and customs enforcement, and chief information officer. Moreover, in the past two months, the agency has lost senior officials long rumored to be leaving, including Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Cybersecurity Bruce McConnell and Under Secretary for Science and Technology Tara O’Toole. While President Obama has nominated individuals for positions including deputy secretary, general counsel, and commissioner of customs and border protection, the Senate has delayed the confirmation process due to the August recess and the government shutdown; it is unclear when these hearings will be rescheduled. Now, with the budget and debt ceiling deadlines looming (December 13 and February 7, respectively), there is little time for confirmation hearings before the holiday recess.

    Stephanie Sanok Kostro is acting director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Meredith Boyle is a research intern with the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Stephanie Sanok Kostro