House, Senate Committees Approve Border And Cyber Security Bills

The House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday marked up a $15 billion authorization bill that would provide $10 billion for President Donald Trump’s security wall along the southern U.S. border, related infrastructure, and technology and air assets.

The bill also provides another $5 billion for modernizing U.S. ports of entry.

Debate over the Border Security for America Act (H.R. 3548) was halted after several hours for floor votes and a classified briefing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before proceeding to recorded votes later in the afternoon. The bill was approved with 17 Republicans in favor and 12 Democrats against.capitol

The committee unanimously approved by voice vote an amendment offered by Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) that calls for more basic training for front line Border Patrol agents and CBP officers, stronger leadership training at CBP, and a pilot project at three land ports of entry that would examine high-throughput non-intrusive inspection systems to scan vehicles crossing the border for contraband and drugs.

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) offered an amendment that was approved along party lines. It attempts to limit building of a border security wall in remote or geographically challenged areas but Democrats objected because it gives the DHS secretary decision authority rather than create an “objective process with an impartial arbiter.”

A number of Democrat amendments failed by recorded vote that would have required environmental studies and other analyses are conducted before additional wall could be built.

There were several Democratic amendments that failed by voice, including one by Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan (Calif.), requiring the DHS secretary to certify that all border security solutions comply with analyses and performance metrics required by the department. A similar provision offered by Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) would have required that that DHS adhere to the joint requirements processes and other risk-based approaches to border security.

Another provision that was rejected by Republicans and was offered by Rep. Filemon Vela (Calif.), who inserted colorful language to describe the proposed border wall that was a hallmark of the Trump campaign for president. Vela, who offered a number of amendments related to the construction of the wall, facetiously called it a “beautiful wall,” the same words Trump has used to describe his vision of a solid concrete barrier spanning the nearly 2,000 mile southern U.S. border.

Separately, a Senate committee on Wednesday approved a spate of bills, including several aimed at strengthening border and cyber security in the U.S.

One of the bills would create a bug bounty pilot program at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to employ ethical hackers to try and find vulnerabilities and gaps in the departments computer networks. The Hack DHS Act (S. 1281), introduced by Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), is modeled after a similar program at the Defense Department that pays white-hat hackers to exploit cyber security weaknesses in the DoD’s networks.

A bipartisan companion bill to the Hassan and Portman legislation has been introduced in the House by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Scotty Taylor (R-Va.).

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also passed the Border Security Technology Accountability Act of 2107 (S. 146), which directs DHS to improve its acquisition planning for major border security technology programs by having written program baselines, documentation in support of achieving cost, schedule and performance thresholds, a plan for managing contractor performance, meet internal control standards, and testing and evaluation plans. The bill was introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Major acquisition programs are defined as costing at least $300 million over their life-cycle. 

Another bill would improve Customs and Border Protection’s ability to hire employees. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Hiring and Retention Act of 2017 (S. 1305), was introduced by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

The Reporting Efficiently to Proper Officials in Response to Terrorism Act (S. 1884), introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), ranking member on the committee, and Mike Lee (R-Utah), requires DHS, the Justice Department, FBI, and National Counterterrorism Center, to report to Congress after a terror attack on possible security gaps and policy changes that could help prevent future attacks.

A bill was also approved to eliminate sunset provisions in the FY ’17 defense authorization bill relating to the consolidation of federal data centers. The FITARA Enhancement Act of 2017 (S. 1867), was sponsored by Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

The committee also approved the nomination of John Mitnick to be general counsel of DHS.

A bill requiring the federal Office of Personnel Management to report on the backlog of security clearance investigations was also approved. The Securely Expediting Clearances Through Reporting Transparency Act of 2017 (S. 3210), also directs OPM to report on the process for conducting security clearances for the Executive Office of the President.

In total, 14 bills and Mitnick’s nomination were approved by voice vote by the Senate panel.

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