An unfortunate consequence of our current political climate is that the public has become desensitized to the games congressional leaders play when legislating some of the most critical issues to this country. Having seen Congress cry wolf so many times, many citizens believe that the looming shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security will likely be averted at the last minute.
Yet a similar crisis wasn’t averted in October 2013, when federal activities ceased to operate because Congress was unable to agree on measures to fund our government. It cost our economy $24 billion and should have served as an embarrassing warning to party leaders who held government functions hostage for personal and partisan motivations.
Sixteen months later, here we are again. Except this time the only department at risk of a shutdown is the primary agency tasked with ensuring the safety of our country and our citizens at home while deterring threats from abroad. Even if a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security were averted, it’s likely congressional Republicans will continue to revert to stopgap measures where funding levels are frozen at inadequate rates. Doing so leaves our country vulnerable to emerging threats and new challenges that face us — among others, ISIS and cybersecurity.
This high-stakes game of chicken could have been avoided. When Congress voted in December on a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year, it funded every federal department and agency through September 2015 — except Homeland Security. Most Homeland Security operations will cease to be funded as of Friday if an agreement cannot be reached.
For those in Congress calling the shots, this isn’t about funding levels. It’s about waging political war.
The department wasn’t funded in December due to Republican leaders’ efforts to undermine President Obama’s intended executive actions on immigration reform. They are trying to leverage Homeland Security funding in order to prevent the implementation of the president’s executive actions. This is dangerous, irresponsible, and shameful. It’s an abuse of power.
A shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security would have serious consequences. Training and research programs that assist our local law enforcement in preventing attacks would cease. The databases monitoring suspected terrorists and criminals would not be updated. Thousands of workers would be furloughed and the ones that are deemed “essential” to keeping our country safe — such as members of the Coast Guard — would work without pay. And for states enduring unprecedented storms, such as ours, there would be no new, immediate disaster assistance or reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
What does the congressional mishandling of the Department of Homeland Security say to those who serve as our first responders, or to those responsible for protecting our borders and ports? And what would a shutdown say to the rest of the world about our priorities, our commitment to stopping terrorism, and our ability to keep our own citizens safe? What if an attack happened during a shutdown? How quickly would we be able to mount an efficient response?
A bipartisan group of senators has voiced support for Homeland Security funding free from political poison pills, and Obama has made clear that he will veto any bill that is not a straightforward funding of the department. House leaders must bring a bill to the floor that will fund the agency for the entire year and is free from politically motivated provisions.
At the heart of this issue is the hypocrisy of Republican leadership. On one hand, they support committing American lives to battling terrorists abroad and spending billions of dollars on new infrastructure across our southern border. On the other, they won’t fund our homeland security efforts simply to make a political point.
US Representative William Keating is ranking member of the Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and also serves on the Homeland Security Committee.