Congress Gives Chertoff Polite Pounding

Thursday, February 8th 2007, 5:38 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff got an earful at his first public sit-down with the new Congress on Thursday, with members raising concerns about cuts in state grants, sharp increases in immigration fees and lax management of billion-dollar programs.

Although Democrats are now in charge, members from both parties took turns hitting him with a long list of concerns. In effect, Thursday's hearing by the House panel that holds his department's purse strings served as a warning that lawmakers will be challenging the Bush administration on a long list of Homeland Security programs.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., chairman of the Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security panel, said he was concerned about $1.2 billion in cuts President Bush has proposed for grants to state and local emergency workers for preparedness training.

The panel's top Republican, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., was worried about the lack of accountability and oversight of two huge programs _ the multiyear $25 billion upgrade of the Coast Guard shipbuilding initiative known as Deepwater, and another to build a fence, both physical and technological, along the southwest border, known as the Secure Border Initiative.

Rogers warned Chertoff that with his 4-year-old department going through its third major reorganization, ``Managing a department, especially one with such a critical mission, is difficult enough without the constant change.''

Several committee members with Latino constituencies were concerned about Bush's proposed higher fees for immigrants. Under the plan, an application for a green card could rise from $325 to $905, and those with green cards would pay $595 to become citizens, up from $330.

Chertoff acknowledged the higher fee is a hardship for some, but said Congress itself had ordered the program to be supported by user fees. He added that the long backlog of pending applications had been reduced, and suggested that giving people better service might be a fair exchange.

``Without the money, we're going to be back with the backlog,'' he said.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., weighed in on an apparent inconsistency in airport security procedures. While passengers must go through strict security, including removing jackets, jewelry and shoes, she pointed out that airport workers, who receive only minimal screening to receive their access badges, are waved through.

``Meticulously screening passengers but giving workers open access doesn't make sense to me,'' she told Chertoff.

He said there had been some random searches, but that total screening of workers would slow lines down.

Lowey did not let up.

``It doesn't make any sense. Does it make sense to you?'' she demanded.

Chertoff was forced to say he'd find a ``practical way to do it.''

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., was unhappy about cuts to a program just outside Birmingham, Ala., for training health professionals in disaster response. But Chertoff replied, ``We've asked all the components to take a look at where they can tighten their belts.''

Some members were worried about the REAL ID Act of 2005 that required states to conform to a national standard when issuing drivers' licenses, and link to other states' systems. The law was a response to Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists who obtained drivers' licenses and used them as identity cards for purchasing airline tickets. The law is to take effect in May 2008.

About a dozen states have passed legislation against the law, due to concern about the cost to overhaul their procedures and technology. Some privacy experts, meanwhile, are worried about the creation of a new federal database.

Chertoff said there would be no federal database but rather the goal is to make sure standards are reliable, ``So I actually view it as a win/win for security and for privacy.''

His testimony came on a day when Bush visited the Homeland Security Department and praised it for improving airline safety, cargo inspection, border security and emergency response.

Bush said the department's formation has been ``difficult and complicated,'' but he called the agency's progress substantial.