Lieberman Cautions Chertoff on “Risky Policy” of Under-Funding

WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., delivered the following statement Tuesday on the Administration’s FY 2008 Budget request for the Department of Homeland Security programs. The Committee’s sole witness was Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Good morning, Secretary Chertoff. I’m pleased to welcome you here before this committee today to discuss the Department of Homeland Security’s Fiscal Year 2008 budget request. Mr. Secretary, I’ll say publicly that I appreciate very much the leadership that you’ve brought to the Department in melding these 180,000 employees previously in separate agencies into an effective, united Department that can protect the American people here at home from disasters, both natural and man-made. And as I look at the budget I will indicate some of the places where I think there are some encouraging moves.

But I must say I am deeply disappointed to see that this year’s request continues a risky policy of under-funding some of the nation’s most pressing homeland security priorities.

For the fourth year in a row, the Department’s budget request cuts crucial support for our under-equipped and under-trained first responders – the fire fighters, police officers, and emergency medical workers who prepare for and respond to disasters both natural and man made.

The Administration’s budget proposal would cut overall grant funding by a staggering 40 percent – which I believe will seriously limit the ability of state and local officials to protect their communities the way they should be protected. This goes not just to our on-going effort to be prepared for and to prevent another terrorist attack here in the United States, but to be ready for the natural disasters that inevitably will come. We were lucky to have a mild hurricane season in 2006, but the next hurricane season is less than four months away, and these cuts in the Homeland Security Grant Funding programs would reduce the ability of every state and city to prevent and respond effectively. Under the Administration’s proposal, the minimum amount each state would receive would be reduced from approximately $6.75 million in FY 2007 to $625,000 for FY 2008. That is a very deep cut that will be difficult for many states to absorb.

Rail and transit security is another area seriously under funded by the Department’s budget request, although at $175 million, it is a marked improvement over last year’s request of zero. Mr. Secretary, you know well the vulnerabilities of our transportation systems and the history of al Qaeda attacks on those systems in London and Madrid. I know we can do more, and I believe it is urgent that in the area of rail and transit security we do more.

Moving on to port security, this Committee worked in collaboration with the Commerce Committee and others to pass the SAFE Port Act last year, which authorized $400 million in port security grant funding. I believe that was a reasonable and in fact a modest estimate of the needs of this critical area that everyone agrees is a vulnerable area, which is port security. The Department is now requesting just $210 million. I hope we can find a way to get up to the $400 million that the bill authorizes because I truly do not believe that the $210 million is enough.

On the brighter side, I am heartened the Department recognized the recommendations made by this Committee’s Hurricane Katrina report and subsequent bipartisan legislation passed by Congress last year. The $142 million increase to FEMA’s operating budget is a promising beginning toward helping the agency address critical shortcomings such as incident management, disaster logistics, and emergency communications. I hope over the next several years the budget continues to provide the resources necessary to restore FEMA to an agency we can all be proud of again.

As I believe you know, two weeks ago Senators Landrieu, Obama and I traveled to New Orleans on behalf of this committee for a field hearing on Gulf Coast recovery efforts. We toured the hardest hit parts of the city, and heard first hand the frustrations of people desperately trying to rebuild their communities against enormous odds. The most poignant plea that we heard was not for more money to be appropriated now, but for the money that’s been appropriated to get to the victims for whom it was intended. The Gulf Coast recovery – one and a half years after the hurricane – is painfully slow and needs the attention of your Department and this Administration. It was clear to me, that just as was the case in the inadequate reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the blame here for the slowness of the money we’ve appropriated moving to the places where it’s intended to go is shared at all levels of government as well.

On a different note, I’m pleased to see that the Department intends to conduct a Quadrennial Homeland Security Review in 2008. This requirement is patterned after legislation passed in 1997 that establishes the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which I believe has played an important role in helping DOD realign its strategies and missions to adapt to a fast-changing world and an ever evolving enemy. I think the Department of Homeland Security could benefit from the same type of review process, and I hope that you make this a priority for your leadership team in 2008.

Finally, let me note that tomorrow we will be marking up our bill on the un-implemented 9/11 Commission recommendations, which contains provisions that will strengthen the Department’s information-sharing, terrorist travel, emergency response, and private sector preparedness efforts. I hope that you will support this Committee’s bipartisan efforts to move this legislation forward.

Thanks for being here, I look forward to hearing your testimony, and I would now call on the committee’s ranking member, Senator Collins.