Buried within the omnibus appropriations bill signed into law in December 2015 is a provision (Section 563 of Division F, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act) that allows DHS to establish a common appropriations structure, starting with the FY 2017 budget request that will be released in early February. This is something that DHS Secretary Johnson originally requested as part of the FY 2015 DHS budget request, as described in this testimony from March 2014:
As part of this agenda we are tackling our budget structure and process. DHS currently has 76 appropriations and over 120 projects, programs or activities, and there are significant structural inconsistencies across components, making mission based budget planning and budget execution analysis difficult. We are making changes to our budget process to better focus our efforts on a mission and cross-component view.
In the reports that accompanied the FY 2015 and FY 2016 DHS appropriations bills, the appropriations committees were mixed in their support for a transition to such a common appropriations structure in report language. In FY 2015, the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) believed that “DHS would benefit from the implementation of a common appropriation structure across the Department,” but the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) remained silent on this proposal.
In the FY 2016 bills, the HAC included bill language to establish a common appropriations structure, and noted emphatically that “implementing this methodology is a strategic imperative and must move forward with haste.” But the SAC was lukewarm to the proposal in its Committee report for FY 2016. The Committee acknowledged the DHS leadership team’s reasons for considering such a shift: “the goal of following funds from planning through execution is critical to departmental oversight of the components as well as establishing a capability to make tradeoffs in resource allocation and budget development decisions.” But it expressed concern about the potential harm to transparency and congressional oversight from such a shift, and expressed concerns about being unable to compare prior years’ appropriations following such a restructuring. It urged DHS to “tread carefully in this area and work closely with
The provision included in the final omnibus appropriations bill is a modified version of the House provision, changing the word “shall” to “may” in a few places to soften the mandate for DHS to implement a common appropriation structure for the forthcoming budget request, and requiring that DHS provide a detailed report by April 1, 2016 to the committees on the transition to a common appropriations structure, as a precondition for getting the full authority to implement these changes. These minor changes are not likely to inhibit the ability of DHS to move forward with carrying out this transition, consistent with the intent of the Department’s leadership.
As the new language specifies, and as illustrated in the report “A Common Appropriations Structure for DHS: FY 2016 Crosswalk” (made public on the DHS website late last year), all DHS appropriations will now be allocated in one of four top-level categories: (1) Operations & Support, (2) Procurement, Construction and Improvements, (3) Research and Development, and (4) Federal Assistance. These top-level categories are similar to the structure used by the Department of Defense, where funds are primarily allocated with the categories of (1) Personnel, (2) Operations and Maintenance, (3) Procurement, and (4) Research, Development, Test and Evaluation.
The primary intent of this structure is to facilitate the ability of DHS leadership and Congress to develop greater insight into how funds are being allocated and spent across the Department. Currently, in many of the Department’s components, funds for day-to-day operations (salaries, rent, etc.) are mixed together in budget accounts with long-term capital investments (new ships, screening equipment, etc.), making it difficult to assess whether the right balance is being struck between present-day needs and future requirements. The new structure should also make it easier to identify and compare similar investments being made in different DHS components, and hopefully then find savings and efficiencies, consistent with the stated objectives of the Department’s Unity of Effort Initiative.
A secondary benefit of this reorganization is that it should enhance the ability of authorizing committees to pass authorization bills for DHS on a regular basis. The information provided to Congress in budget requests under a common appropriations structure can be used as a basis for authorizing funds, in a similar way to how the Armed Services Committees use information from DOD budget requests and the Future Years Defense Program to inform their annual authorization bills. The new common appropriations structure would not eliminate the jurisdictional issues that have made it difficult for Congress to pass DHS authorization bills over the past decade, but it would provide a basis for authorizing funds on a cross-cutting basis that is not wholly tied to the fragmented component-level jurisdiction over DHS in the House and the Senate.
Overall, this shift to a common appropriations structure is an encouraging development for the ongoing maturation of DHS, and if executed successfully in the coming year will be a significant accomplishment for Secretary Johnson and his team.