Homeland Security is too important to leave without a leader
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With John Kelly no longer serving as the secretary of Homeland Security, since taking on the role of White House chief of staff, a key national security post has been left vacant. The acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke, will undoubtedly provide solid continuity and interim leadership to the sprawling department. However, the administration and the Senate must still move quickly to identify and confirm permanent leadership.

The threats that our nation faces are varied and relentless. As we have seen in the recent terror attacks in the United Kingdom, as well as the thwarted plot to bring down an airliner in Australia, terrorists have not given up on seeking to attack democracies around the world. While serving as secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly even remarked that the threat of terrorism is worse than most realize. And terrorism is only one aspect of the department’s focus.


The Department of Homeland Security’s mission to prevent terrorism and enhance security as well as to ensure disaster resilience, and other core functions, is massively complicated and spread across seven agencies and over a dozen offices that range from specialized focus areas to very large programs that could be mistaken for independent agencies. All of which function under various political appointees and career government employees.


An acting secretary, no matter how capable in the job, is limited in their ability to lead such a massive bureaucracy that is overseen not only by the White House, but also over 100 Congressional committees, sub-committees and caucuses.

The administration has also set out an ambitious agenda for reforming the Department of Homeland Security, most notably through its budget request for fiscal 2018.  This includes major cuts to state and local preparedness programs by FEMA that form the basis for our national preparedness infrastructure, while increasing funding and the scope of mission for other agencies.

Of course, it is unlikely that the Congress will actually pass the president’s budget as written. But the administration has still signaled a strategy with its budget that would dramatically change the way we secure our nation as well as how we prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. This kind of change requires someone with the political capital and standing to operationalize this strategy and to push back against ill-conceived policies that are not in the best interests of securing our nation. 

An acting secretary has neither the authority nor the political standing to do this. 

However, this vacancy also provides the administration an opportunity to appoint permanent leadership that is not burdened with the singular rhetoric of immigration enforcement that was central in the presidential campaign. It also provides the Senate with an opportunity to come together on what could be a truly bi-partisan confirmation.

The next secretary of Homeland Security must be able to reconcile the disparate enforcement missions of the department with its responsibilities to protect the country, while simultaneously building national, state and local capacities to manage disasters that are unavoidable. And they must do all of this with the backing of the administration and strong working relationships with Congress.

The most immediate step that the administration and the Senate can do to secure the nation and ensure our resilience, is to appoint and confirm a new secretary of Homeland Security that that can accomplish all that the job requires in a manner that is transparent, effective and accountable.

Irwin Redlener, MD is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He is the author of “Americans At Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared For Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” published in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD. 

Jeff Schlegelmilch, MPH, MEP is the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has over a decade of experience in developing programs for community resilience and public health preparedness and advised numerous local, state and federal officials on preparedness policies and programs. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschlegel

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.