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The DHS budget battle: the consequences of a funding lapse

The Department of Homeland Security has attracted significant media attention in recent days due to the threat that the Department’s funding will lapse at the end of February, if Congress fails to pass an FY 2015 appropriations bill (or failing that, another continuing resolution) for the Department. As has been well reported, the process for getting to agreement on funding DHS is stalemated, due to the largely separate policy debate over the inclusion of immigration policy riders that would roll back the Administration’s executive actions on immigration from last November.

There are no significant disagreements within Congress on proposed funding levels in the bill, and notably, all three former Secretaries of the Department wrote a letter to Congressional leadership calling for a “decoupling” of this debate.

Given the increasing likelihood that this legislation will remain stalemated, there has been a growing public debate on the potential consequences of a funding lapse at DHS in the last week, a debate that has assessed both the impact on the Department’s operations and more broadly on national security. There’s no simple and easily quantifiable way to resolve this debate, but I would assess the issue as follows:

1. If the Department’s funding lapses at the end of February, around 85% of the Department’s 230,000+ employees would remain on the job, working in an unpaid status, but the other 15% – at least 30,000-35,000 people – would be furloughed. The chart on the last page of this DHS document from 2011 gives a good approximation of the scope of exempt vs. furloughed employees in the various parts of DHS.

2. Key DHS operational entities would continue functioning during a funding lapse. This includes TSA’s role at airports, CBP’s role at U.S. borders and ports of entry, and the Coast Guard’s operational role. Nearly all employees who work on the frontline would be among the 85% of employees who would still be required to work during a lapse in funding (but wouldn’t get paid until the lapse in funding ended). The general public would notice little difference in DHS activities during a lapse in funding.

3. Although frontline personnel would be maintained, all DHS operational entities – CBP, ICE, Coast Guard, etc. – would lose much of their mission support personnel to furlough during a lapse in funding. For example, in 2011 CBP was projected to furlough more than 9,000 staff (around 16% of its total workforce), and ICE would have furloughed over 4,000 staff (20% of total workforce). In parts of the Department such as these two components, it is likely that exempt frontline employees would need to be shifted to backfill necessary mission support roles, leading to some reduction in frontline operational capacity.

4. Other non-frontline but mission-critical parts of the Department would lose significant capacity during a shutdown. NPPD, the office at DHS responsible for cybersecurity and infrastructure protection, would likely have to furlough nearly 90% of its staff (excluding the Federal Protective Service), based on projections in the 2011 plan. The Offices for Intelligence and Analysis and Operations Coordination would collectively furlough more than half of their staff. The Management Directorate would have to furlough 90% of its staff. These and many other “non-operational” entities are not superfluous – they play a critical role in carrying out the Department’s established responsibilities under law, and the Department’s capability, performance and accountability will suffer under any prolonged lapse in funding.

5. Even prior to a potential lapse in funding, the current budget uncertainty creates other significant and detrimental impacts on the Department’s performance. The fact that the Department is funded only through the end of February inhibits long-term planning efforts with respect to acquisition, grant-making, hiring, and other key management activities within the Department. (Unfortunately, this is nothing new for DHS in recent years, which like may other agencies has had to operate under continuing resolutions for a large share of the last 4-5 budget years).

Overall, I come to the conclusion that there would be real and harmful impacts on the Department’s mission performance for any lapse in funding that lasts longer than a few days. For that reason, it is critical that all parties in Congress find a way to avoid a lapse in DHS’s funding, hopefully by a “decoupling” of the immigration debate from DHS appropriations legislation, as the three former DHS Secretaries have proposed. These immigration policy issues are worthy of a robust policy debate and legislative action, but such a debate should not put the Department of Homeland Security’s funding, operations, and mission performance at risk.