In the next week or two the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans to mark up its version of an authorization bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a key milestone toward congressional approval of a comprehensive bill that codifies existing and potentially new authorities for the 15-year old department.

Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (D-Wis.) said on Wednesday he hopes the markup can take place next week but added it could be delayed a week. The committee held a roundtable with witnesses from DHS and a congressional audit agency to discuss the need to reauthorize DHS and give members a chance to probe into a range of matters at the department.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson R-Wisc.).
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.).

Last July the House passed its version of a comprehensive DHS authorization bill, the first for the department since it stood up in 2003. To get that bill passed, the more than half-dozen committees that oversee DHS agreed to let the House Homeland Security Committee lead the reauthorization, although the final bill combined the committee’s work and that of others such as the House Transportation and Infrastructure panel, which oversees the Coast Guard.

No such agreement exists in the Senate at this point and Johnson said the authorization effort is a “little more messier here in the Senate,” noting that his committee is focused on its areas of jurisdiction over DHS. Last year the Senate Commerce Committee approved a Coast Guard authorization bill and also legislation related to the Transportation Security Administration. The Senate Judiciary Committee also oversees portions of DHS.

One “glaring omission” from the House bill, Johnson said, is an effort to streamline congressional oversight of DHS, which is now done by many dozens of committees and subcommittees. Johnson said he’s not big on commissions but wants to consider forming one that will work with the congressional committees that oversee DHS to “reduce that burden” so the department “is focusing on its primary mission which is keeping America safe and secure.”

The House bill includes a provision that would rename  and refocus the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) within DHS to account for its operational focus in the areas of cyber and physical infrastructure security. Johnson said he’s unsure at the moment whether his committee will take up the NPPD mission in the forthcoming markup or as a separate measure, but noted that there is a “great desire” to get it done.

Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke told the committee that the authorization bill is important and urged its passage.

Regarding proposed change of NPPD to the Cyber and Infrastructure Protection Agency, Duke said it’s more than a name change, adding that it will be “elevated to an operating component,” giving it the management structure and procurement staff it needs to operate. “That is important because it carries authorities and mission support with it along with mission,” she said.

Duke also said that changing the name of the organization to better reflect the mission will help give its employees an identity that matches their mission.

George Scott, managing director of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told the panel that GAO is in favor of the NPPD reorganization to better reflect its focus on the cyber security mission. He added that “a name change will help in terms of clarifying its mission and also to help recruitment.”

If NPPD is reorganized to reflect its focus on cyber and physical security, Scott said the expectations around roles and missions and measures of effectiveness must accompany the transition.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said she believes the committee should hold hearings on the proposed NPPD reorganization and expressed doubts that the cyber security mission will get the status it needs if lumped together with the physical security mission.