DHS consolidation hopes dim

The Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has no firm plans to strip oversight responsibilities from his colleagues by consolidating the more than 100 panels with jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security.

Lawmaker attempts to shrink the vast number of panels that oversee DHS have been thwarted at nearly every step over the years. And Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the committee’s new head, said he’s taking a pragmatic approach to dealing with the overlapping jurisdictional issues of the many committees and subcommittees.

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“My goal is to work with other relevant committee chairs and try to work out the jurisdictional battles and not engage in a bunch of turf wars,” McCaul told The Hill.

“I know the 9/11 Commission recommended [consolidating oversight]. I think it makes sense. But I’m also realistic and this has sort of been institutionalized for 10 years now. It’s something you have to deal with very carefully.”

Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), the outgoing head of the committee, told The Hill that one of his biggest regrets as chairman was not reducing the number of committees and subcommittees that oversee the various portions of DHS.

“That is definitely a disappointment, that we did not consolidate jurisdiction,” King said.

King and Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, pressed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to take action last year, but to no avail.

Born out of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, DHS has become a mammoth agency tasked with securing everything from air travel to border security and illegal immigration. Correspondingly, congressional oversight of the department has ballooned at a similar rate, with 119 panels — many of them overlapping — taking responsibility for the different parts of the agency.

King pointed to the shear amount of time, money and resources that DHS devotes to meeting the many congressional panels.

“It’s not just a power grab for the committee,” he said. “It’s unfair to the homeland security community, to the department, to have so many masters and, in some ways, tugging in different directions.”

One of the 9/11 Commission’s top recommendations was that, “Congress should create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security.”

DHS submits hundreds of reports to Congress, testifies at hundreds of hearings, and provides thousands of briefings to Capitol Hill.

“While effective congressional oversight is critical to promoting transparency, accountability, and efficiency, the 9/11 Commission Report recognized that the existing structure of fragmented and disparate oversight over DHS requires significant Department resources and hinders Congress’ ability to provide the Department with clear oversight and guidance," said DHS spokesman Matt Chandler in an e-mail to The Hill.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a 2010 letter to King that it took an estimated 60 hours to prepare for just one DHS official to testify, with some hearings requiring as much as 200 hours to prepare.

Napolitano gave a conservative estimate of 33,000 hours for the amount of time agency staff took in 2009 to prepare, deliver, and follow-up on testimony before Congress. About 41,000 hours were spent preparing for and delivering Hill briefings and more than 58,000 hours were spent responding to letters from Congress.

In total, Napolitano said it cost the equivalent of about $9.9 million in salary hours to respond to all of the congressional requests in 2009.

Lawmakers and administration officials in favor of consolidation stress that they have utter respect for the congressional oversight role, but that by spreading DHS over so many different committees and subcommittees, the department’s efficiency is compromised.

Napolitano told King that many DHS officials spend more time responding to congressional oversight requests than doing the operational portion of their jobs.

A significant degree of bipartisan support for the consolidation move exists as well.

Under President George W. Bush, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pressed for the consolidation of congressional oversight.

Chertoff outlined the significant costs and duplicative efforts that DHS officials undertake, telling King in a 2007 letter that moving to “streamline Congressional oversight of DHS would pay significant productivity dividends.”

Thompson has long pushed to consolidate congressional oversight over DHS, last month pressing McCaul to make another go at it as the panel’s chairman.

While lawmakers are loath to talk about the roadblocks that exist, congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle said the impediments revolve around turf wars. To consolidate the number of overseeing panels, some lawmakers would need to relinquish jurisdictional control, they explained.

“Everyone wants a piece of the oversight pie,” said a Republican staffer familiar with DHS oversight issues. “But no one wants to give up what they already have.”