WASHINGTON – Jeh Johnson’s path toward serving as secretary of Homeland Security encountered turbulence on Wednesday with one lawmaker threatening to block consideration of his nomination and another vowing to oppose him unless his questions get an answer.
Johnson, the former general counsel in the Department of Defense and President Obama’s choice to replace Janet Napolitano at the agency, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security Committee that he will bring a sense of “transparency and candor” to the office and cited the 9-11 terrorist attacks of 2001 as a stimulating force.
“September 11 changed millions of us, it changed me, and it motivates me to answer this call to lead the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security,” Johnson said.
But Johnson encountered almost immediate opposition from a pair of GOP lawmakers. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) repeated his promise to block every Obama administration nominee until he and the rest of Congress are provided with additional information about the Benghazi terrorist attack of September 2012, which led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) indicated he will withhold his support and place a hold on the nomination unless Johnson provides details on how he intends to make the nation’s southern border with Mexico 90 percent secure.
“I am not asking for your inclination,” McCain said. “We have our responsibilities here and one of them is to have a secure border. And unless we get the right information from you and your bureaucracy, we’re not able to ascertain how we can secure our border.”
Johnson said he is inclined to provide McCain with the information he seeks but he will first have to consult with the administration.
Regardless, several panel members – including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member — expressed the expectation that Johnson ultimately will survive the confirmation rigors. All three department secretaries who preceded Johnson — Republicans Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff and Democrat Janet Napolitano – signed a letter endorsing Johnson.
Johnson’s nomination, as with most of President Obama’s choices for high positions within the administration, has proved rocky from the outset, with critics maintaining the partner in a high-powered New York law firm and Democratic Party activist doesn’t carry the credentials necessary for the job.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) has proved particularly critical of Johnson, characterizing him as a “political hack” during an appearance on Fox News.
“I would have liked to have had a guy who was not sort of on-the-job training, somebody that immediately could come in, command respect and stature,” McCaul said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) acknowledged he has “grave concerns” about the Johnson nomination, joining McCain in questioning his ability to secure the border.
“Rather than selecting someone who knows the unique dynamics of our Southern border, President Obama has tapped one of his former New York fundraisers,” Cornyn said. “We need someone who knows how to secure the border, not dial for dollars.”
Johnson has served in an advisory capacity in a few presidential campaigns and as a fundraiser. He was special counsel to John Kerry, the former senator and current secretary of State, during his unsuccessful presidential run in 2004. He also was an early Obama supporter, serving as a member of his national finance committee.
Despite the detractors, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee chairman, praised Obama’s choice, asserting that his prior governmental experience establishes that he is “prepared to face the challenges that will await him if he is confirmed by the Senate. For four years, he was a major player in running the Defense Department. He provided key advice to two exceptional Defense Secretaries — Bob Gates and Leon Panetta — giving him invaluable experience for the huge task to which he has been nominated.”
In his testimony, Johnson pledged to spend a considerable amount of time getting the 10-year-old Department of Homeland Security into fighting shape. Currently, 40 percent of the senior leadership positions within the agency are either vacant or held by someone in a temporary capacity.
Johnson said the leadership vacancies within the department have reached “alarming proportions” and he intends to devote time and attention to management issues if he is confirmed.
“As I speak, the department of government charged with the vital mission of homeland security has no secretary, no deputy secretary and a number of other senior positions are vacant,” Johnson said. “If confirmed as secretary, my immediate priority, starting the day I take the oath, will be to work with the White House and the Senate to fill the remainder of these key leadership positions.”
Johnson also vowed to keep an eye on the agency’s money issues and will push for audited financial statements.
“I will be a hawk when it comes to identifying fraud, waste and abuse in the use of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “If confirmed, I pledge not to shrink from difficult or controversial decisions. Those at the Pentagon and in the field know my track record in this regard – ranging from politically-charged matters of personnel policy to the legality of lethal force.”
Carper acknowledged that it is “critically important that Mr. Johnson be allowed to surround himself with a capable leadership team” and that Congress needs to help.
“Currently at DHS, there are 13 presidentially-appointed positions that are without a permanent replacement,” Carper said. “Of these, nine require Senate confirmation. I call this ‘Executive Branch Swiss Cheese.’ As we consider Mr. Johnson’s nomination, we must remember that protecting the homeland is a team sport and those of us in the legislative branch are critical members of this important team. Once Mr. Johnson is confirmed, we must do our part to expeditiously vet and – hopefully – confirm his leadership team, as well.”
Johnson compared the Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy to “a large, sluggish aircraft carrier that will, if you let it, just kind of chug along in a certain direction.”
“And I think good leaders need to push it sometimes in different directions, which can be uncomfortable for a lot of people,” he said.
The panel barely pressed Johnson on domestic terrorism issues. He did take the opportunity to say he believes the threat is moving into a third phase that is more diffuse than what has been observed in the past – individuals acting alone as opposed to within a group.
“Those threats in my view are even harder to detect,” he said. “We’re going to have to be vigilant.”