President Barack Obama is trying to solve big problems in his proposed 2014 budget. His efforts to curtail entitlement spending have gotten most of the headlines. But he also seems determined to complete the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new headquarters, the largest federal construction project since the Pentagon rose in the 1940s. The cost: $3.9 billion.
The project would unite at a single location nearly all DHS’s 22 divisions devoted to thwarting terrorists and safeguarding the populace from natural and manmade disasters. The site is the campus of St. Elizabeth Hospital, a former federal asylum that was once the home of poet Ezra Pound and John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin. There would be 4.5 million square feet of workspace in the new facility and ample employee parking.
The project’s supporters say the price tag is justified. They say it’s not easy to get the various DHS divisions to operate in concert with each other if they are scattered throughout the capital area. At the 2009 groundbreaking, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano herself made the case for the agency’s costly new digs: “It will help us have meetings. It will help us create a culture of ‘one DHS.’”
It didn’t take long for the project to become mired in politics. House Republicans, a number of whom see the DHS as an inefficient and fiscally profligate bureaucracy, were loath to fund the new headquarters fully. A new headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard, which involved more excavation than any real estate development in the District of Columbia’s history, moved forward. The rest of the endeavor languished, becoming a symbol of Washington dysfunction. The tighter integration that Napolitano promised also remained a work in progress. The DHS is on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s “high risk” list, a distinction it shares with such troubled federal agencies as the U.S. Postal Service.
Now Obama is trying to ensure that the DHS headquarters eventually rises. On Wednesday, the president included $367 million in his budget to continue construction.
Getting the money won’t be easy. In February, one of the DHS’s more persistent naysayers, U.S. Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican, boasted about how he and his fellow party members had curtailed the project. He said he would also like to dismantle much of the DHS.
He’d better act swiftly. If the White House ever gets all the DHS’s divisions on one campus, nobody will want to move them again.