Weekly Wastebasket

Bonanza at the Border

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October 05, 2017
Weekly Wastebasket Volume: XXII No. 40


The House Homeland Security Committee has completed its consideration of H.R. 3548, the “Border Security for America Act”.

It would be understandable for one to read the summary and think big bucks are bound for the border. The committee states the bill, “Provides $10 billion for the deployment and construction of tactical infrastructure and technology to achieve full operational control and situational awareness. This deployment includes wall, fencing, technology, air assets, and other barriers.”

In fact this is a policy bill that “authorizes” the funding, but that doesn’t put the check in the mail.

A separate appropriations bill must be signed into law that directs the spending of $10 billion for these purposes, so don’t be fooled by the word, “provides.” This provision merely “provides” the spending committee the opportunity to spend these resources.

But that’s not all that’s in the bill.

This legislation, among other things, amends the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 to strike references to fencing and replace the term “physical barriers.” Fans of President Trump’s plan for a wall along the border will rejoice but, in fact, not all physical barriers are walls and the devil is in the details in large and sweeping pieces of legislation like this. In fact the bill defines physical barriers as “(including fencing, border wall system, and levee walls).”

Careful readers will also note that the $10 billion that would be authorized by this legislation is also supposed to cover “technology” which can be far more expensive than fences or walls. So you can see that $10 billion, if it’s ever actually appropriated, will be whittled away pretty quickly if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is also supposed to buy technology from the same pot of money.

The bill goes sector-by-sector in the Customs and Border Patrol organizational chart and assigns specific technology to each one. For instance, the DHS is directed to give the San Diego sector “Subterranean surveillance and detection technologies” but not to the El Paso sector.

We’ll have to dig a little deeper to determine how priorities were set for each sector, but this is an improvement on previous approaches that took a cookie cutter approach to technology for sectors that were very different from a topographical standpoint.

Also gone from this draft is the assignment of very specific numbers of cameras or sensors for each sector. That’s another improvement over the 2013 version of this legislation that revived an old CBP “wish list” and attempted to codify it into law. While it isn’t a huge improvement, we’ll take improvements where we can get them in this expensive and messy business.

Perhaps the most alarming language in the legislation doesn’t direct the spending of money but instead confers upon the Secretary of Homeland Security (a position that is currently empty and filled on an “acting” basis) enormous powers.

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security is authorized to waive all legal requirements the Secretary, in the Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure the expeditious construction, installation, operation, and maintenance of the tactical infrastructure and technology under this section. Any such decision by the Secretary shall be effective upon publication in the Federal Register.”

Wow! That’s a lot of power to effect the lives and livelihoods of those who own land or make their living along America’s borders.

Congress is just sacrificing their oversight and accountability role on the altar of expedience. This isn’t just about speeding up construction, under this provision the Secretary can just ignore procurement and other planning rules that are designed to save taxpayers’ cash. It’s like lawmakers forgot the now-cancelled budgetary black hole that was SBInet.

Obviously as a nation we need secure borders, but throwing a bunch of cash at the problem and oversight out the window – particularly without reference to the actual scope of the problem or the appropriateness of the potential solutions – is not a solution to the complex issues at hand. If anything, it makes things worse.

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