Ex-Homeland Security Secretaries, Even the Republicans, Blast Congress Over DHS Funding Impasse

PHOTO: Airline passengers go through the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Ga. on Aug. 3, 2011. Erik S. Lesser/AP Photo
Airline passengers go through the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Ga. on Aug. 3, 2011.

In the latest rhetorical salvo over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Jeh Johnson stood shoulder-to-shoulder today with two of his Republican predecessors, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, blasting Congress for threatening funding for the department.

Ridge was equally blunt in his assessment of Congress, despite expressing strong opposition to President Obama’s executive order on immigration, saying the president “has gravely overstepped his constitutional authority.”

“I don't think we right that wrong on the backs of the patriots that go to work every day and provide safety and security every day at the department of homeland security,” Ridge, the first DHS secretary from 2003 to 2005 under President George W. Bush, said.

“They [Republicans in Congress] may not like what has transpired, but the solution that they seek, in my judgment, is unfortunate, from a policy point of view it's wrong, it's folly,” Ridge said.

Ridge said DHS workers are improperly being caught up in the policy debate over immigration.

“You don’t elevate the debate and you don’t send a message by refusing to compensate the men and women who go to work every single day in a uniform of public service, when their mission is, frankly, to keep us safe and secure,” he said.

Former DHS Secretary Chertoff was similarly blunt, accusing the Congress of holding the DHS hostage in an act political gamesmanship.

“What I don’t think makes sense is to hold the entire set of operations at the Department of Homeland Security in abeyance, as a hostage as the legislative branch starts to play a game of chicken with the president,” Chertoff, Bush’s second DHS secretary from 2005 to 2009, said.

Despite the tough talk, current Secretary Jeh Johnson expressed optimism that an agreement could be worked out before the Friday deadline passes and forces furloughs and suspended operations and pay stoppages for the department’s employees.

“I remain optimistic that Congress is going to work this out, but we have to plan, we have to prepare,” Johnson said.

“We’re talking about working men and women here,” Johnson said about the prospect of his department’s employees working without pay.

“They are entitled to know what the status of negotiations are in Congress are because their paychecks hang in the balance,” Johnson added.

Johnson told reporters of FEMA Director Craig Fugate’s emotional reaction to the prospect of a DHS shutdown: “I feel as though my people are being treated as pawns, as though they don’t matter.”

DHS has already begun the process of informing people who would be furloughed if the impasse is not resolved.

All this occurs with the backdrop of a more challenged security environment in the homeland, due in large part to the instability in Syria and Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.

“The breadth and the depth of the threat streams and threats directed to the United States of America today, in 2015, in my judgment, are greater and more complex than as of September 12, 2001,” Ridge said. “That’s a fact of life.”

For him and the other secretaries who have led the department, Ridge said, it has become personal.

“I want somebody up on the Hill, as much as I disagree with the president, to look into the eyes of that man on horseback or on an ATV on the southern border, or look in the eyes of that Coastie who is just being dropped in 30-foot waves to rescue some crab fisherman outside of Alaska,” Ridge said.

“I want you to look in their eyes and say, ‘Well, we appreciate what you do, but we don’t appreciate it enough to fund you. So it becomes very personal for … the four secretaries.”

While former DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, who served under Obama from 2009 to 2013, was not in attendance at the briefing, she said in a statement she stands with her colleagues in support of the passage of a clean DHS funding bill.