Lawmakers Voice Bipartisan Concern Over 'Chaos' at Homeland Security

Rep. Bennie Thompson

Rep. Bennie Thompson Susan Walsh/AP

Top watchdogs also say turnover is hurting the department.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern at a hearing on Wednesday about tumult at the Homeland Security Department, saying a lack of permanent leadership could hamper long-term planning and negatively impact employee morale.

While Democrats and Republicans bickered over the need for a hearing and whether President Trump’s leadership of DHS differed from President Obama’s, they agreed the sudden exits of an array of top officials and widespread reliance on managers in acting capacities were creating a disruptive environment for the department’s workforce. Their misgivings were shared by top government watchdogs who testified before the House Homeland Security Committee. The watchdogs said acting officials will face difficulties in fixing the systemic problems investigations have revealed at DHS.

Employee morale at the department, for example, has long fallen below the government average and officials in temporary positions are going to have a “much more difficult” time addressing it, said John Roth, the department’s former inspector general. He also pointed to DHS’s longstanding “unity of effort” initiative—to better merge the department’s disparate missions and components into a more cohesive organization—as falling victim to constant leadership turnover.

“Strong, permanent leadership, with political accountability and political backing, are necessary for effectiveness in growing organizations,” Roth said. “Knitting together a unified DHS with all components pulling together to protect our homeland security is a top challenge of the department and requires strong and committed leadership and oversight. This goal is thwarted by the pervasive senior leadership vacancies.”

After a recent purging of top staff, the DHS secretary, Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Immigration and Customs Enforcement director and Secret Service director are all vacant with officials filling in on a temporary basis. David Pekoske is serving as both Transportation Security Administration chief and DHS deputy secretary. A slew of other positions, such as the chief financial officer, undersecretary for management and the inspector general, remain unfilled.  

Several Republicans on the committee suggested the current vacancies are not unprecedented, noting a period in 2013 when Obama left many of the department’s top posts unfilled. Democrats pushed back on the comparison, saying Obama was working with an adversarial Senate intent on blocking his nominees. Trump, they said, has purposely fired DHS officials to give himself more discretion over the department’s direction.

“This chaos appears to be by design, orchestrated by a president who wants to be able to remove the Department's leadership on a whim,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the committee’s chairman. “The president wants people who have not gone through the confirmation process because they are more beholden to him and more likely to carry out his controversial policies without question.”

Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., said Trump was engaged in an effort to solidify his control of DHS.

“Some [of the vacancies] are strategic,” Payne said. “CBP—he wants to run that. ICE—he wants to run that. OIG—there’s nobody checking to make sure things are running properly.”

Several Democrats cited Trump’s own words, noting he said earlier this year that he likes acting officials “because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.”

Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., disagreed with the president’s logic. “The notion that acting is going to be better—I don’t think that it is,” Katko said.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, agreed that vacancies were hurting the department, but said the committee should have spent its time on issues it can more directly affect. “The number and length of these vacancies is definitely a problem,” Crenshaw said. “Agreed. Done.” He added acting officials cannot “implement a long-term vision.”

Gene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office, noted some specific areas in which acting officials will face restrictions, including interacting with the federal intelligence community and state and local leaders during disaster response. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said his home state is already feeling those impacts, citing vacancies at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as detrimental to recovery efforts underway after severe flooding.

Dodaro added that turnover is inherent in our governmental system, but the current rate of departures is particularly problematic. “Hopefully over time more confirmed positions will be approved by the Senate to provide more stability in [DHS’s] management functions,” Dodaro said.