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New Atlanticist May 31, 2023

Will the debt ceiling deal mean less for homeland security?

By Thomas S. Warrick

What the new budget deal to raise the federal debt ceiling means for homeland security is only slowly coming into focus. Very few of the initial statements out of the White House or House Republican leadership about the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 mention what the new budget cap means for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or for homeland security more broadly. A close look, however, leaves reason for concern. DHS will be competing for fewer civilian budget dollars against the full range of the nation’s domestic needs and priorities. This puts the United States’ defenses at risk in areas where the threats are increasing, as in cybersecurity, border and immigration security, and domestic counterterrorism. 

US President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy deserve praise for avoiding a catastrophic default on the United States’ fiscal obligations that otherwise would have disrupted debt payments, Social Security payments to seniors, and the federal payroll that includes everyone who keeps the United States safe. Most commentators on the budget part of the deal have focused on the contrast between “defense spending,” where the agreement largely endorses the Biden administration’s requested increase for the Department of Defense, versus domestic programs, which are slated for a cut over the previous year’s levels. However, it is important to remember that DHS leads the defense of the United States against nonmilitary threats. DHS is responsible for border, aviation, and maritime security, as well as cybersecurity. It also helps protect critical infrastructure, oversees immigration, builds resilience, restores communities after disasters, and combats crimes of exploitation. As the third-largest cabinet department in the federal government, DHS’s budget is intrinsically linked to the security of the United States. However, DHS’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2024 is not getting the same treatment as the budget for the Department of Defense (DOD).

When security is “nonsecurity”

The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 classifies most of DHS’s budget as “nonsecurity.” This is paradoxical but true. Barring future changes to the deal, which are always possible, DHS will be in a zero-sum competition in the FY 2024 budget negotiations against other civilian programs such as nutrition programs for children, domestic law enforcement, housing programs, community grants programs, and national parks. Whereas the federal government should be spending more on cybersecurity, border and immigration security, and community programs to prevent violent extremism and domestic terrorism, the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 will make this harder because the overall pot of money for nondefense programs for FY 2024 will be less than in FY 2023. This appears to be the case even though more spending on cybersecurity and border security has strong bipartisan support.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 follows the legislative language of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the first of several debt ceiling deals in the Obama administration), which divided so-called “discretionary” federal spending into two different two-way splits. First, there is the “security category” and the “nonsecurity category.” The security category includes most of the budgets of the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. It also includes the National Nuclear Security Administration, the intelligence community management account, and the so-called “150 account” for international programs such as military aid, development assistance, and overseas diplomatic operations. The nonsecurity category is essentially everything else, such as the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior. 

Central to the 2011 budget deal was that it did not apply to nondiscretionary programs such as Social Security and fee-based programs such as citizenship and visa applications, which are not considered “discretionary” spending. Emergency spending, narrowly defined, was exempt from the budget caps, as was most of the war against al-Qaeda, which was categorized as “Overseas Contingency Operations” and exempt from the budget caps that began in 2011.

DHS will be competing for fewer civilian budget dollars against the full range of the nation’s domestic needs and priorities.

The second split in budget law, which originated in a budget deal in December 2013, is between the “revised security category” and the “revised nonsecurity category.” The revised security category includes only budget account 050, roughly 96 percent of which is the Department of Defense (budget code 051). About 3 percent is for nuclear programs run by the Department of Energy (code 053), and about 1 percent is for national defense-related programs at DHS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (mainly counterintelligence programs), and parts of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The main DHS programs funded under this revised security category (budget code 054) are extremely limited: emergency management functions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on things like emergency communications systems and alternate sites the federal government could use in case of emergency or an extreme event such as a nuclear attack, as well as some functions of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Thus, since 2013, most of the budgets of DHS, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and foreign military assistance have been in the “security category” but have also paradoxically been in the “revised nonsecurity category.”

In the May 2023 budget deal, the $886.3 billion spending cap agreed to by the White House and the House Republican leadership for FY 2024 is only for the “revised security category.” Most of DHS, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and military assistance are lumped in with the $703.6 billion cap for “revised nonsecurity” civilian parts of the federal government. Of that, $703.6 billion, $121 billion is earmarked for veterans’ programs. After several other adjustments and offsets, as the White House calculates it, this leaves $637 billion for all other “revised nonsecurity” programs. This is a nominal cut of one billion dollars from what those departments got in the FY 2023 budget passed in December 2022. Because inflation in the past year was 4.9 percent, the effective budget cut to “revised nonsecurity programs” would be greater than one billion dollars. The House Republicans calculate an even greater cut, to $583 billion, by not including the adjustments and offsets.

Flash back to 2011 and forward to 2024

In 2011, the debate between the Obama administration and the Republicans in Congress could be simplified into the idea that Democrats wanted more spending on social programs in the “nonsecurity category,” while Republicans wanted more money spent on “security,” principally defense spending but also including homeland security.

The debate in 2023 does not break down so neatly. There is increasing, bipartisan agreement that the United States needs to be spending more on border and immigration security, and that waiting until the start of FY 2024 to address this shortfall is not going to enable the administration’s strategy to succeed. There is also bipartisan agreement that the federal government as a whole should spend more on cybersecurity. And as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act showed, mental health and community grants to address the causes of school shootings have bipartisan support. There is also bipartisan support for military assistance to help Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression and to help Taiwan build up its defenses to deter a possible Chinese invasion. These programs are all funded mostly or wholly from “revised nonsecurity” programs. It is not clear how these programs will fare in the budget environment created by the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023.

Commercial aviation and borders still need to be protected, even while cyber threats mount and increased quantities of fentanyl come through ports of entry.

Other departments and agencies can reallocate funds when priorities change, but not DHS. After DOD successfully led international efforts to take away the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s territory in Iraq and Syria, the military was able to pivot to Asia, redeploying drones and personnel out of the Middle East to defend the Indo-Pacific. However, for DHS, as the 2023 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review made clear, threats seldom go away, even when the homeland faces new threats. Commercial aviation and borders still need to be protected, even while cyber threats mount and increased quantities of fentanyl come through ports of entry.

As valid as these concerns are, they are no reason to torpedo the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. To the contrary, failure to pass the bill would gravely jeopardize national and homeland security, not to mention the economic security of the United States.

Nor do these concerns mean that other departments and agencies do not have their own justifications for increased resources in FY 2024. But the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 is not going to make it easier for homeland security. Congress needs to recognize this as it works toward the final budget for FY 2024, and, perhaps more urgently, when it considers whether to pass an emergency supplemental appropriations bill for border and immigration security. Congress needs to ensure, as it provided for military security in the “security category” of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, that DHS has the resources it needs to defend the nation against nonmilitary threats.

Thomas S. Warrick is the director of the Future of DHS project at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense program and a nonresident senior fellow and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He is a former DHS deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy.

Further reading

Image: A Department of Homeland Security police officer mans a barricade during a bomb threat near the US Capitol in Washington, DC, August 19, 2021.