Time for rational oversight of DHS

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Can you imagine reporting directly to dozens of different bosses? The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does just that. Answerable to more than 100 different congressional committees and subcommittees, department officials spend thousands of hours each year briefing lawmakers and staff members — and countless more preparing testimony and writing reports for its legislative masters.

Congressional oversight is, of course, both desirable and necessary. But the byzantine system of accountability under which the DHS operates is, to quote a favorite phrase of Congress itself, “bloated, inefficient, and seriously dysfunctional.”

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This problem has been festering for a decade. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report called on Congress to “create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security.” Instead, scores of committees and subcommittees continue to confuse and delay policies designed to protect the United States.

The price tag for such redundant oversight is staggering, in terms of both direct costs and time lost. According to the National Security Preparedness Group, an organization led by the chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the DHS provided nearly 4,000 congressional briefings and testified before Congress more than 285 times in 2009 and 2010.

“This amounted to many thousands of hours of work, often duplicating efforts, and cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars,” the group wrote in 2011.

And the situation hasn’t improved. The department had 391 officials testify in 257 hearings and conducted close to 4,000 briefings between 2012 and 2013, yet again costing tens of millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours.

In times of tightening budgets and growing threats, we can’t afford to waste precious security dollars on inside-the-Beltway power politics. It’s time to rationalize oversight of the DHS, and that requires overarching, comprehensive reform.

Congress must cut the number of committees overseeing the Department of Homeland Security. It should consolidate primary oversight under one committee in the House and one in the Senate with coordinated jurisdiction. Such a move would save money, streamline the oversight process, and get DHS officials off Capitol Hill and back at their posts. 

More than congressional oversight would be improved. Consolidated reporting lines would also enhance internal cohesion within the department itself, especially in planning for and dealing with the threats against our homeland. Rather than having to reconcile different sets of guidance from different committees, DHS officials would have consolidated oversight generating a single, integrated message, allowing them to work with a common goal in mind. In turn, Congress — and the American people — would have a much clearer picture of what the DHS is actually doing.

The world today is even more unstable than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. Our southern border is under pressure dealing with the desperate social and economic fallout of failed governance losing ground to powerful criminal networks. The chaotic situation offers a tempting opportunity for malefactors of all stripes to exploit. Meanwhile, the human pipelines bringing foreign fighters into conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa could be reoriented at any time to flood the American homeland.

The next attempt by transnational terrorists to attack the United States could come from anywhere. Our nation’s security demands that our Homeland Security Department be at the top of its game, not distracted and weighed down by cumbersome oversight from Congress.

Yet the department remains trapped in a debilitating system that subordinates homeland security to jurisdictional pride. This must change. And change, in the form of radical simplification of DHS oversight, is a top priority for the nation’s top homeland security experts.

Recently, the last three DHS secretaries, members of the 9/11 Commission and more than 50 other federal officials and members of Congress took out a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal calling for wholesale reform that will free the DHS from the chains of redundant, extraneous — at times even contradictory — oversight. The American people deserve it. Homeland security demands it.

Lute is the president and CEO of the Council on CyberSecurity, and a former deputy secretary of Homeland Security (2009–2013). Carafano is vice president of national security and foreign relations studies at The Heritage Foundation.