Congress, heal thyself

When George Washington announced in 1783 that he was voluntarily giving up his reins of power and retiring as commander in chief of the Continental Army, an incredulous King George of Great Britain remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

King George understood that relinquishing power was — and is — a rare event. If members of Congress would follow Washington’s example more often, they might be held in higher esteem. And there is no better place to start than in adopting the only one of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations yet to be addressed: Congress should create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security instead of the multiple committees that currently exist.

When Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff met with a group of bloggers earlier this year, he was asked about impact of Congress’s conspicuous failure to streamline its oversight functions:

“Our department reports to 86 congressional committees. Over the last year my colleagues and I have been called to testify 224 times; that averages to about four times a week. Since the department’s creation, DHS officials have testified 761 times, provided roughly 7,800 written reports and answered more than 13,000 questions for the record.”

Proper oversight is necessary to ensure both accountability and the public trust. What Secretary Chertoff described, however, is not oversight — it is overkill. This overkill affects more than the overworked staff at DHS, who find themselves scrambling to meet the conflicting demands of 86 different masters. It affects an entire industry that is still trying to get its sea legs under it — and an American public that must navigate the attendant confusion.

Who’s got final jurisdiction for addressing the many names wrongly flagged on the government’s watch list?

Sure, the Transportation Security Administration. But when you need congressional intervention, where do you go? When the disastrous economic effects of the politically popular but security-weak mandate for scanning 100 percent of all cargo starts to be felt, where does the public go for redress?

Remember the pledge to end pork-barrel spending? With 86 different committee chairmen all looking to get a piece of the DHS grant pie, everybody is grabbing and nobody is accountable.

Lobbyists are favorite punching bags in this political climate. Every week, Congress proposes legislation that has significant repercussions for American citizens from all walks of life — from union members to business owners; from immigrants to Native Americans — who want to travel safely and efficiently. Lobbyists give voice to these individuals, but even these “insider pros” don’t have the omniscience or physical stamina to run the gauntlet that Congress has created for the homeland security industry.

Maybe that’s why so many bad bills keep getting passed and then repealed — the normal vetting process has been eviscerated as industry reps and citizen advocates spend unnecessary time navigating the maze of congressional committees, with their competing jurisdictions. This serves to divert attention from the merits of the legislation.

This congressional morass needs to be corrected. Will anybody on Capitol Hill follow the lead of George Washington and voluntarily relinquish power for the better good of government?

Probably not, so we the citizens need to take action. Here’s how:

First, in the midst of a campaign season, voters ought to be asking whether having 86 committees with DHS oversight jurisdiction is in their best interests (or whether it is merely a means of maintaining power and fundraising connections).

Second, private-sector companies, unions and trade associations that all have a stake in homeland security issues should make their concerns known when members of Congress come calling. If the mission of a good government-relations person includes speaking “truth to power,” then now is the time to deliver the message.

Third, all of the interested parties should demand that Congress start the debate for changing the committee structure now, as Congress readies to take up the individual bills that will eventually comprise the Homeland Security Department reauthorization legislation. When the 110th Congress comes in next January, the transition plan should be well-understood on all sides. This will also help the next president in getting early confirmation of a DHS secretary and lessening the potential terrorist threat that security experts say will arise if there is a leadership vacuum.

Finally, Secretary Chertoff has it right:

“Our country needs to have an honest discussion about the trade-offs involved in homeland security … When you have 80 or so other committees, each of which has a narrow slice of jurisdiction that also seeks to have input into how we prioritize and how we make trade-offs, then you have a recipe for conflicting direction and constant fighting about who controls jurisdiction over what part of [DHS].”

It is time for Congress to set the right priorities. It can start by finishing the work of the 9/11 Commission.

David Olive is the moderator of the Washington Homeland Security Roundtable Inc. , a nonprofit organization composed of private-sector companies involved in the homeland security marketplace, and is a principal with Olive, Edwards & Cooper , a government relations and public affairs firm.