A member of the Congressional Black Caucus has taken a leadership role on a key committee overseeing the Department of Homeland Security and has racial equity in the agency’s contracting practices among his priorities.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) has been appointed ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, putting him at the helm of his party’s initiatives for the newly created committee. At the top of that list is pushing through legislation defining the committee’s authority over homeland security, a Cabinet department that was created in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and controls agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration.
Thompson introduced an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 that would have required the department to award at least 5% of its contracts to small, disadvantaged, and minority- and women-owned businesses. Although the bill was passed by the House in May without the amendment, it does require the department to report to Congress on its progress in terms of diversity issues.
Since reauthorization is an annual process, Thompson will have future opportunities to get a small and disadvantaged provision included in the legislation. In the meantime, his office is releasing a report on the progress, or lack thereof, of the department regarding diversity spending, recruitment, and outreach for the Centers of Excellence program.
The Department of Homeland Security spends billions every year on services and equipment. However, it has a less-than-stellar record of doing business with small and minority-owned companies, according to the most recent report on government contracting by Democrats on the House Small Business Committee. It was one of seven departments that received an “F” grade from the group for its spending with small businesses in fiscal year 2003.
“Our view of the landscape is that the big boys have the lion’s share of the business,” Thompson says, pointing to several possible reasons why the numbers are low. First, he says, the agency is only 3 years old and is not experienced in setting realistic goals for hiring minority-owned businesses or in reaching out to those firms.
The agency is also in transition. Its new chief, Michael Chertoff, was sworn in as secretary in February after Tom Ridge, the former head, resigned late last year.
Thompson says he has met with Chertoff since he took over the agency and plans more sessions to gauge how much progress has been made. “He assured me that diversity is important to him, both from a personnel and a business perspective. We’re going to follow up on his comments,” Thompson says.