Napolitano sails through confirmation hearing

Updated 01/16 21:00 EST

Janet Napolitano completed her confirmation before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Thursday without any real challenges, garnering praise and vows of support from every member of the committee, including both Republican members.  Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) said that he will move to have Napolitano confirmed by the full Senate as soon as possible after President-elect Obama’s inauguration next week, and said that seating Napolitano was “as important as seating the secretary of defense to the security of our country.”

When asked what her top priorities for DHS are, Napolitano gave three:

  1. Create a unified vision and culture for the department.
    • Give the departments people and offices the sense that it’s a single agency rather than an agglomeration of organizations.
  2. Bring together the “best and brightest” personnel.
    • She also touched on DHS’ low morale, and said she wanted to create “real career paths” that will allow people to rise in the ranks.
  3. “Complete the work of the transition.”
    • Basically, complete the hand-offs, and get people up-to-speed and down to business quickly.

Some other areas emphasized during her testimony included interoperability, border security and immigration, and FEMA’s relationship with DHS.  She also said she was committed to ensuring that DHS communicate better with the public.

Regarding FEMA, both Lieberman and Susan Collins (R-ME), the ranking Republican member of the committee, urged Napolitano not to reorganize DHS and not to remove FEMA from DHS.  Napolitano hasn’t publicly taken a position on FEMA’s relationship wtih DHS, but she has reportedly been asking members of Congress for their views on it, and she pledged to actively study it.

Summary: She’ll get confirmed easily, possibly as early as January 21st.  She appears to have a good working relationship with the member of the committee, which may enable her to be more effective, at least as long as the honeymoon lasts.  Expect interoperability and border security to get increased focus and resources, and expect some changes in immigration enforcement.

FEMA’s relationship to DHS drawing attention and debate

One of the most important decisions President-elect Obama will face when his administration takes over DHS is whether to leave FEMA as a part of DHS, or remove it from DHS and make it a cabinet-level agency, as it was before DHS was formed.  Members of Congress, stakeholders, and prominent organizations are taking sides on the issue, but it’s not clear yet what stance the Obama administration will take.

[UPDATE 05/15: CQ Politics reports that on Wednesday 5/13, Secretary Napolitano stated that the Obama administration supports keeping FEMA within DHS; but one day later, Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) said that he will continue his push to remove FEMA from DHS, despite opposition from the administration.  Give some credit to the dedicated folks at FEMA who’ve had to endure the uncertainty of this long-running debate, because apparently it’s not over yet.]

House: Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wrote to President-elect Obama on Dec. 17 to demand the removal of FEMA from DHS, declaring that its placement in the larger agency impedes its ability to serve as a “quick response” agency.  In response, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Rep. wrote to Obama Dec. 19 strongly disagreeing with Oberstar, saying that FEMA should remain in DHS, but that Obama should appoint someone to lead FEMA who has a strong relationship with Obama.

Senate: Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Disaster Recovery Subcommittee, has stated that she doesn’t recommend removing FEMA from DHS at this point, but she’s open to the concept and wouldn’t resist it if the new administration made the decision to make the change.  Landrieu told Homeland Security Secretary-designate Janet Napolitano that “there were still some senators that felt strongly about it staying where it is, some that were kind of open to change and others that would really recommend that it be made independent”, and that “it should be open to discussion.”

Update 01/15/09: Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), the chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), the ranking Republican member, urged Janet Napolitano at her confirmation hearing not to remove FEMA from DHS.

Bush Administration: The Bush administration made the decision to include FEMA in DHS, and still supports that decision.  Michael Chertoff has publicly stated that he opposes removing FEMA from DHS, and has cautioned his successor from making any major changes to DHS.

Obama Administration: The Obama administration has not taken a public stance on either side of the issue.  Senator Landrieu said Napolitano is “testing the waters” with Congress to find out how members of Congress feel about the issue.  Landrieu emphasized that Napolitano didn’t say removing FEMA from DHS is something the Obama team is considering.

Update 01/15/09: At Janet Napolitano’s confirmation hearing, she didn’t take a stance on either side of the issue, instead promising to actively look into the issue.  But her other testimony about FEMA indicated strong support both for FEMA and for increasing FEMA’s cooperation with the rest of DHS, regardless of where FEMA ends up.

Update 02/25/09: The DHS Inspector General weighed in with a report titled “FEMA: In or Out?“, in which the ID recommends keeping FEMA in DHS.

Other Organizations and Stakeholders: A month ago the International Association of Emergency Managers officially endorsed removing FEMA from DHS (Representatives Oberstar and Thompson publicly disagreed on the issue at that time as well).  In addition, the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, weighed in on December 4 with a memo supporting Thompson’s position to leave FEMA as part of DHS.  A number of other organizations and stakeholders have cautioned more generally against any major reorganizations at DHS, even though they may not have addressed FEMA specifically.

Update 01/08/2009: 3 fire service organizations – the IAFC (International Association of Fire Chiefs),  IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters), and Congressional Fire Services Instituteweigh in against removing FEMA from DHS.

  • The IAFF is affiliated with the AFL-CIO (labor is expected to have some influence in the strongly Democratic Congress), and according to the IAFF web site, “The IAFF is one of the most active lobbying organizations in Washington; its Political Action Committee, FIREPAC, is among the top one percent of the more than 4,000 federal PACs in the country.”
  • So expect these 3 organizations to carry some weight, and for Congress to resist if the Obama administration pushes to separate FEMA from DHS.

Potential Conflicts: In Oberstar’s letter to Obama he declared that his committee has jurisdiction over FEMA and that making FEMA independent would have strong support in Congress.  However, the overlapping nature of Congressional oversight of DHS makes it likely that other Congressional Committees, including the House Committee on Homeland Security that Thompson chairs, will lay some claim to FEMA oversight as well.

Expectations (My Take): Expect continued public discussion and debate, but expect Obama to take some time before making a decision.  And regardless of what his final decision is, don’t expect a change to FEMA any time soon.  Obama tends to be a consensus builder, and feelings are strong enough on this issue that even if Obama decides to remove FEMA from DHS, he’ll probably go slow, taking time to build a broader base of support for the change before implementing it.

UPDATE 12/24/08: It’s important to note that one of the reasons there is resistance to making FEMA independent of DHS again is that some important entanglements between FEMA and DHS have already been established in terms of politics, funding, and already enacted legislation (which was written to apply to DHS as a whole).  It could get pretty messy to separate them at this point.  For example, allocation of funds for the DHS Homeland Security Grants Program (HSGP) is performed by the FEMA Grants Directorate, and moving that function to DHS could cause confusion and funding changes all the way down to the state and local level.  So if FEMA is ultimately pulled out of DHS, expect some ripples and unintended consequences in unexpected areas.

Update 02/25/09: At this point, I’d say the momentum is clearly on the side of keeping FEMA in DHS, and I’m going to stop updating this post.  If this changes and the momentum seems to swing the other way, I’ll publish a new post.

HSC may become part of NSC in Obama administration

From NTI Global Security Newswire:

UPDATE 01/08/2009: According to an article today in the New York Times, Obama has reportedly made the decision, and will merge the HSC with the NSC some time after the inauguration on Jan. 20.

The incoming Obama administration is considering merging the White House’s Homeland Security Council with the National Security Council, which handles foreign policy matters.  If Obama merged the two, the portfolio of retired Army Gen. James Jones, the president-elect’s pick for national security adviser, would expand, giving him a primary role in shaping disaster management and counterterrorism policy within the United States.

It’s not clear what move Obama favors. But before the election, two think tanks — the Center for American Progress and Third Way — released a homeland security transition study co-written by John Podesta, the head of Obama’s transition team, and Clark Kent Ervin, a a transition adviser and former inspector general at the Homeland Security Department. That report recommended that the NSC subsume the Homeland Security Council.

A spokesperson for the Obama transition didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Report proposes tougher chemical security regulations

From HSToday:

President-elect Obama’s most ambitious legislative initiative in the area of homeland security during his years in the US Senate was a bill co-sponsored with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to toughen federal standards and oversight of security at US chemical plants. Though Obama’s 2006 bill, called the Chemical Safety and Security Act of 2006, was never enacted, Obama has continued to make chemical security a centerpiece of his policy proposals on homeland security.

The current law on national chemical security, passed as a temporary bill in 2006, is due to expire in October 2009. Many prominent Democrats, including President-elect Obama, have criticized the interim bill for lacking stringent standards and enforcement power.

A new report from the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington, DC think tank from which several key advisors of the Obama transition team have been drawn, outlines a broad program of chemical security reforms currently being discussed in prominent Democratic party policy circles. The report, titled Chemical Security 101, provides a detailed preview of the regulatory proposals that may emerge both in Congress and from the new administration itself in the coming year.

The report recommends that Congress establish a comprehensive chemical security program rooted in identifying, developing, and leveraging the use of alternative technologies that could remove the threat of a catastrophic toxic gas release by generating chemicals at the point of use rather than transporting and storing them.  In addition the report also calls for incentives to industry to encourage migration to the alternate technologies.

The report also recommends building in greater oversight capacity and ensuring equal enforcement.  This, the report acknowledges, will entail a harder line on regulating industry. “Chemical companies should not receive special treatment just because they participate in voluntary industry security programs, as proposed in some recent bills before Congress,” it says.

[Note: Because of the close relationship some of Obama’s advisers have with the Center for American Progress, this think tank may have a hand in shaping quite a bit of homeland security policy in the new administration.  They have a weekly national security newsletter for those interested.]

Emergency Managers endorse removing FEMA from DHS

From CQ Politics:

The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), a prominent association of emergency managers, is recommending that the Obama administration pull the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) out of the Homeland Security Department and restore its leader to cabinet level status.  Larry J. Gispert, president of IAEM said this has been the IAEM’s “informal position all along,” but the board of directors formalized the stance at the group’s annual meeting this week.

“They have an opportunity with the change of administration to . . . do it right, which is to have FEMA be a stand-alone agency reporting directly to the president and the administrator of FEMA sitting in the cabinet,” Gispert said. “That’s the James Lee Witt model.”  During the Clinton administration, FEMA Administrator James Lee Witt met with the cabinet. His successor in the Bush administration, Joe M. Allbaugh, did not.

Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, endorsed the idea.  But House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) says FEMA should stay where it is.  Obama’s transition team declined to comment for this story.

Obama names DHS transition team

From CQ Politics:

President-elect Barack Obama ’s transition team named Clark Kent Ervin (DHS’s first Inspector General) and Robert R. Beers (former national security advisor to John Kerry in 2004) to lead the group that will review the Department of Homeland Security and make personnel and policy suggestions, .

The role of the Agency Review Teams is to conduct reviews that provide information to Obama and other key players on budget, personnel and policy matters.

GAO outlines 13 critical HS priorities for Obama administration

Defense readiness and spending; food safety; preparing for large-scale health emergencies; and homeland security are among a list of 13 “urgent issues” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) “has identified as among those needing the attention of President-elect [Barack] Obama and the 111th Congress during the transition and the first year of the new administration and Congress,” Acting Comptroller General, Gene Dodaro, said Thursday.

UPDATE 11/17: View the GAO’s full recommendations for DHS and all other agencies on the GAO transition web site