House democrats challenge pace of homeland security

House democrats challenge pace of homeland security

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats appear to be growing restive with the progress of security programs under way at the Department of Homeland Security.

During an oversight hearing Wednesday afternoon by the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, members grilled department officials on subjects ranging from radiation detectors to Operation Safe Commerce.

In particular Democrats took the opportunity to criticize the Bush Administration for the lack of funding for port security. The comments could foreshadow new port and maritime security legislation that may be filed next week.

The administration's fiscal 2005 budget calls for $46 million for port security grants. That was far below the $1.5 billion price tag that the Coast Guard put on port security in the first year, said Rep. Norman D. Dicks, D-Wash.

"How are we going to pay for this? There's a big question mark about this," Dicks said.

Rear Admiral David S. Belz, Coast Guard assistant commandant for operations, and Thomas Blank, Transportation Security Administration assistant administrator for policy, said that port security was a cost to be shared by local governments and the private sector.

"They don't have the money, either," Dicks responded. Without some means to pay for port security, "we're going to have a gaping hole in our overall homeland security strategy. I don't see how we can let this go on."

The Democrat members of the committee also questioned the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT). Select committee ranking member Jim Turner, D-Texas, said that some 200 out of 6,200 C-TPAT companies had been validated. Jayson Ahern, Customs assistant commissioner for field operations, said that another 500 validations were in the works, and Customs is "aggressively" hiring validation specialists. The agency has been authorized 157 validators this year; so far it has hired 41.

Several committee members wondered whether or not TSA and the Coast Guard were overlapping their efforts to develop a Transportation Workers Identification Credential. Others questioned why TSA had not begun background checks. Blank said that TSA is concentrating on introducing a prototype of the system.