WASHINGTON, March 1, 2011 -- Eight years ago today the George W. Bush administration completed the largest reorganization and expansion of the federal government since the Cold War with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
The move combined 22 disparate federal agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the U.S. Secret Service, under a new Cabinet-level office at the White House with a starting budget of $37 billion -- a 90 percent increase in homeland security spending over the year before.
But what began as a small operation, coordinated from inside the White House by first Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, has grown to a bureaucratic behemoth, with the second-largest combined workforce behind the Department of Defense and a budget of $57 billion requested for fiscal year 2012.
DHS now leads the effort to prevent and disrupt terror attacks, screen airline passengers and cargo across the country, combat the sex trafficking of children, and patrol the borders and cyberspace, among many other duties.
Officials say despite the broad range of responsibilities and steep start up costs, the agency's work is paying off and getting more efficient every day.
"Our nation is more secure than it was two years ago, and more secure than when DHS was founded," Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in a blog post to mark the anniversary. "Nonetheless, our work never stops."
Napolitano has heralded recent improvements in administrative efficiency, saving taxpayers close to $1 billion, and reduced reliance on outside contractors by 11 percent, or $420 million.
"There are a lot of things that have evolved," former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said today, reflecting on the operations of the agency he helped created. "We were building this agency at the same time we were trying to set up the mechanisms to make us more secure."
But some Republicans say the Department of Homeland Security, whose budget has steadily risen each of the last eight years, has not done enough to reign in costs and curb its incremental growth. And they say now is the time to make cuts at the agency for the first time in its history.
"The Department Homeland Security was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and since then has been plagued by waste, fraud, and extensive bureaucracy," wrote Tea Party favorite and freshman Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in a budget proposal released last month.
DHS Cuts Debated
Paul wants to cut the DHS budget by 43 percent, transferring the Coast Guard to the Department of Defense, privatizing more of the work currently done by TSA, and trimming remaining spending to 2008 levels.
Those steep cuts haven't gained traction with many lawmakers, but some have proposed smaller reductions to key DHS priorities, including border security.
The House GOP budget approved last month would slash an estimated $600 million for border security and immigration enforcement from the DHS budget for the remainder of this fiscal year.
"We cannot continue down this path of having double- and triple-digit spending increases on government agencies," said House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan of the bill. "No matter how popular sounding these programs are, they mortgage our children's future and they compromise our economic growth today."
And, other conservatives are urging lawmakers to go further, including reconsidering DHS grants to state and local law enforcement to beef up preparedness for a terrorist attack. The agency has distributed more than $40 billion to localities through those grants since 2003.
"The last thing the U.S. needs in another entitlement program, particularly in homeland security," wrote Jena Baker McNeill and Matt Mayer in a report for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"When state and local officials can rely on federal money to finance projects that are clearly local responsibility, competing interests engender a horde of unnecessary, wasteful projects that would probably never be funded if the localities had been forced to bear the financial burden themselves," they wrote.
But former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the second to head the agency during the Bush administration, said today that DHS has largely proven it is not inclined towards pet projects and abuses of discretionary funds that have characterized military spending.
"There are many urban myths out there," said Chertoff when asked about waste and pork-barrel spending on security programs. "Most of the money in the president's budget now is dedicated to higher-risk areas and generally speaking we didn't get a lot of earmarking."
And while efforts to increase administrative efficiency to reduce costs will continue, experts say the nation's homeland security apparatus, like its entitlement programs, will likely remain exempt from deep cuts for the foreseeable future.
A recent Gallup poll found 56 percent of Americans oppose cuts to spending on homeland security programs with 42 percent in favor. By comparison, 61 percent oppose cuts to Medicare.