Last June, I rode in a golf cart through the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a former mental institution in Washington where the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is building its new $4.5 billon headquarters. The place was a peaceful oasis in one of the tougher parts of the city. Deer and wild turkeys roamed free behind security fences.
All was not well at St. Elizabeths. The DHS project was 10 years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget.
My DHS tour guides were confident that the St. Elizabeths renovation, the largest project in the capital area since the Pentagon’s construction, was finally moving forward after repeated funding delays. They noted that President Obama’s 2014 budget included $367 million for the project.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post’s Josh Hick reports, the House of Representatives approved a 2014 spending plan that trimmed the funding for DHS headquarters by $200 million. It’s unclear how the cut will impact the project, but it can’t help.
The DHS said it needs the money to renovate the hospital’s dilapidated main building where Secretary Jeh Johnson’s office will be located, along with those of many department heads. The building was in terrible shape last June. As I wrote at the time: “It isn’t ready, not by a long shot. There aren’t lights, for one thing. Mills passes out flashlights and leads the way inside. There are holes in the floors. The ceilings are collapsing in some areas.”
It’s unclear when the secretary will be moving in. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2026. It could take longer now.
Democrats and Republicans agree that the DHS needs a headquarters. The department was created in 2003 when 22 federal agencies were merged—including the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Yet the DHS concedes that it has never been able to integrate its disparate pieces into a single agency with one culture. One obstacle is that it’s staff is currently scattered across 50 locations throughout the capital. The DHS has long argued that if it could combine the bulk of its offices on the campus of St. Elizabeths, it would be able to respond more nimbly to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
The project has been plagued by problems. Early on, the DHS had to negotiate a development plan with historic preservationists who feared that it would level buildings on the site, where such famous inmates as poet Ezra Pound once resided. By the time the DHS finished that process, the bottom had fallen out of the economy. After Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010, funding for the project effectively dried up.
That why’s the DHS was counting on Obama to get the St. Elizabeth’s renovation moving again. It may still be able to do some of the extensive restoration work required on the main building, but the project could easily fall further behind schedule because of the funding cuts. If that’s the case, its cost is likely to increase.
Then again, this comes as good news for the wild animals that inhabit the site Once the third-largest federal agency moves in, they’ll be wanting to look for a quieter home.