As the slightly plump, matronly secretary was sworn in, Armistead was amused at the sight of the gaggle of bureaucrats who had accompanied her to the hearing. He wondered if she could survive without her aides and assistants; eleven were seated beside and behind her. He guessed four were lawyers, based on their attire and haughty demeanor. The rest were likely DHS staffers of one sort or another. Lord only knows what they did to earn their keep.
Armistead began. “Madam Secretary, I appreciate you coming today to meet with us. I know your schedule is very hectic, so we won’t take up any more of your time than is absolutely necessary.”
This statement was rather perfunctory, but Tyler Armistead’s southern charm made the secretary believe what he said. And, he actually meant it.
“You’re welcome, Congressman. I’m pleased to be here and hope to answer all your questions to the committee’s satisfaction,” she replied.
“Thank you, Madam Secretary,” Armistead acknowledged.
He went on to welcome other members of the committee, thanking them for their attendance. Somewhat surprisingly, ten of the eleven Democratic members were present. This level of attendance for any committee meeting was quite unusual. The Democratic chairman had grown anxious and put the word out for his members to show up. He didn’t anticipate a vote on anything. Today’s meeting was simply to be a hearing, but he could never be too careful.
Armistead’s first question zeroed in on the issue at hand. “Madam Secretary, are you familiar with section eight of the Immigration Act?”
“No, Congressman,” she laughed. “I haven’t memorized the provisions of the legislation, but I have it here and I’ll look it up.”
“Take your time, Madam Secretary,” he smiled. “I didn’t expect you had.”
One of the secretary’s aides handed her the legislation. She took a few minutes to read the cited section. She glanced at the sections preceding and following the citation. Imperceptible to all but Armistead, who was paying very close attention, the secretary’s body language and expression changed slightly.
“I’ve read it, Congressman, and I’m familiar with it,” she said.
He continued. “Madam Secretary, I know all of us up here on this end of the room write this stuff, but I’d appreciate it if you’d provide the committee with your interpretation of what that paragraph says.”
“Of course, Congressman.” The secretary’s smile seemed more forced than it had been moments earlier. “If I’m not mistaken,” she said to Armistead, “you requested that that paragraph be added to the legislation. It basically requires funding priority be given to the ‘improvement of border security.’”
“Thank you. Does the paragraph define what the ‘improvement of border security’ means or how it’s measured?” Armistead asked.
The secretary’s staff exchanged not-very-discreet glances with each other.
“Yes, Congressman. The paragraph calls for the Department of Homeland Security to establish timelines and schedules for completion of the physical and electronic components of the security plan,” the secretary responded.
“Would you interpret that to be a project management process, similar to the process a contractor would use to build a building?”
“Okay. Does the legislation say anything about how the security plan’s success will be measured?”
The secretary was growing visibly uneasy and a little angry. “With all due respect, Congressman, you wrote this section, so you likely know more about it than I do.”
Not changing his pleasant tone, Armistead said, “That’s becoming quite evident, Madam Secretary. Would you please answer the question?”
Calming herself, she answered. “Yes, Congressman. The section calls for the establishment of various metrics and results measurements that would be used over time to assess the effectiveness of improvements in border security.”
“Madam Secretary, when was the Department of Homeland Security due to complete the project management schedules and metrics?”
“Within ninety days of the president’s signing of the legislation.”
“Therefore, those plans should have been completed by July 20th last year. Is that correct?”
“Madam Secretary, would you please provide the committee with the current status of those project plans and success measurements?”
“Congressman, we’re actively finalizing those plans. I apologize for missing the deadline.”
“Apologies accepted, Madam Secretary. We’re all busy. When should the committee expect those plans for our review?”
The secretary was now visibly churning inside. Armistead’s last question had thrown her a double whammy. She had been pretty much assured that Congress would never follow up on the plans . . . because it never did. So the development of the plans that Armistead had asked about had not even begun.
It was not so much the paperwork for the plans that was bothering her. She could handle that. There were plenty of bureaucrats sitting around counting ceiling tiles. If they put in a few full days’ work, she could produce the required paperwork rather quickly. However, submitting those plans for the committee’s review was another matter.
“Congressman, our department will move quickly to complete the plans and measurements. They’ll be completed by March 1st, if that’s acceptable. And again, I accept responsibility for the delay.” Armistead was about to move on to his next line of questioning, but the secretary went on: “However, Congressman, I’m not aware of any reporting responsibilities our department has to your committee.”
She was about to say something else, but Armistead’s patience had run out and his placid manner had changed.
“Madam Secretary,” he interrupted, “with all due respect, have you heard of the Constitution?”
“Yes, but . . .”
Armistead cut her off. “Have you heard of the concept of congressional oversight? We don’t pass laws to keep ourselves occupied. We pass laws so those laws can be implemented how they were intended and when they were intended.”
Catching himself, he signaled an end to this part of the hearing. “The committee’s secretary should note on the calendar that we will be conducting quarterly hearings to confirm the progress of the Department of Homeland Security in meeting its obligations in implementing the legislation as it was passed by Congress and signed by the president.
“Madam Secretary, we’ll advise you of the precise dates and would appreciate it if you could add those deadlines to your calendar. Also, please provide the appropriate documentation for our review ten business days prior to each hearing so we’ll have time to prepare. Is that clear, Madam Secretary?”
“Yes, Congressman. It’s very clear.”
The secretary had not been dressed down like that in many years. She was furious, and it showed. Her staff was squirming, hoping the hearing would soon be over. They knew the secretary would be a holy terror when they returned to their office, but anything would be better than watching this guy take their boss apart.
“Okay, let’s move on to the next item,” said Armistead, almost back to his usual genial tone. “Madam Secretary, it is correct to say that your department oversees the funding appropriated for the legislation?”
“That is correct, Congressman.”
“And, as I recall, the initial funding for the last fiscal year was $23 billion. Is that your understanding?”
“Madam Secretary, my staff and I did a good deal of research over the last couple of months, and I have some questions about that $23 billion appropriation and what it’s been used for.”
The secretary was now visibly shaken, and her staff were in near panic.
Armistead continued. “I’ll provide copies of all our documents after the hearing—or for your use during this hearing, if you need them.”
“Thank you, Congressman,” the secretary said.
“For example, I’m holding documentation concerning an interagency transfer of funds dated June 14th of last year. If I’m interpreting it correctly, your department transferred $7.9 billion to the Department of Transportation. Are you aware of this transfer?”
The secretary’s head was swimming. She was under oath and wondered how she could answer truthfully and not get a lot of people, in addition to herself, in trouble.
“Congressman, I was aware of the transfer, but I don’t recall the specific details.”
“Okay. Do you know what the funds were used for, once they were transferred to the Transportation Department? Did it have anything to do with border security?”
“I can’t recall, Congressman.”
“I want to be clear in my understanding of your answer. You were aware a third of the last fiscal year’s appropriation for border security was transferred to the Department of Transportation, but you have no idea what it was used for?”
The secretary was not a convincing liar. She stuttered, “I–uh– assumed it’d be used for projects related to Homeland Security.”
“Well, Madam Secretary, you might be interested to learn that some of it was used for engineering and environmental studies associated with the reconstruction of the Kennedy Freeway in Chicago, with the balance earmarked for actual construction whenever the work begins.”
“Congressman, I assumed the transferred funds would be used appropriately by the Transportation Department.”
“Madam Secretary, you assumed incorrectly.”
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