Congress needs bipartisan commission to fix Homeland Security

Congress needs bipartisan commission to fix Homeland Security
© Getty

The House of Representatives recently held a hearing concerning continued poor workforce morale at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As important as workforce morale is, the problem at DHS is a symptom, not a cause. The big issue plaguing DHS is that the department is essentially broken.

The problems with DHS are not new; indeed, they trace back to the very creation of the department. The Bush administration and Congress were right that the U.S. government was not effectively organized to meet modern homeland security challenges. The 9/11 attacks vividly and dramatically made that point. But the effort in creating the department was not commensurate with the complexity of the problem. It was a slapdash affair that brought disparate agencies together to tackle arguably the widest mandate of the federal government, all while failing to address critical underlying questions about the department’s mission and responsibilities vis-à-vis other departments and agencies.

Consider the case of counterterrorism. DHS is, at least theoretically, the department primarily responsible for protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks — except that it is not. The FBI is the lead counterterrorism agency. Except, again, when it is not. The National Counterterrorism Center bills itself as leading the national counterterrorism effort. So this begins to look like a bureaucratic version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” Unfortunately, the overlapping mandates and lack of clarity stretch across the DHS mission space, including cybersecurity (DHS v. National Security Agency v. FBI), immigration enforcement (DHS v. the Department of Justice), preventing attacks by weapons of mass destruction (DHS v. the Intelligence Community v. the Department of Defense v. the Department of Energy v. DOJ), and so on.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet, despite this broad and critical mission set, DHS’s public focus seems to fall back inevitably to immigration enforcement and Southwest border security. These are important policy areas that also happen to be among the most divisive issues in the country. It is understandable that the civil servants at DHS become frustrated as the intense criticism follows, from the left or the right as the occasion demands, nearly every move they make.

Mission clarity is not the only problem plaguing DHS, which is structurally unmanageable. DHS is big, with some 240,000 employees spread across nearly two dozen sub-offices and agencies. While that size and its attendant scope of mission would challenge any organization, DHS has never had a clear theory of management. Is it a unified department under direct secretarial control, or is it a confederation of mostly independent agencies coordinated by the secretary? The public, if not Congress, likely imagines the former. The truth, however, resembles the latter. The department lacks a chain of command, structure, procedures and culture that would enable effective department-wide management.

The past three years of the Trump administration have exacerbated all of these legacy DHS problems. The president has deprived the department of the stable leadership it needs to build and execute programs. DHS is not missing one or two permanent, Senate-confirmed leaders; it is missing most of them, including the secretary and deputy secretary.

The administration’s intense and nearly singular focus on immigration and border enforcement have politicized and polarized the department. Indeed, President TrumpDonald TrumpRonny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign McCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel MORE’s actions in overriding Congress’s spending decisions related to his border wall have precipitated a slow-burning constitutional crisis. It is little wonder that congressional trust in the department has waned. And there is now a sizable portion of the public who believes that at least some agencies — in particular, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — should be abolished. 

It ultimately falls on Congress to step in and prescribe solutions. But in the current political climate, it seems unlikely that a bipartisan majority can come together to craft an effective solution. Indeed, Congress has been unable to streamline and harmonize its oversight of DHS in nearly two decades. Given the importance of what DHS does for America, Congress should create and fund a bipartisan national commission to study the federal homeland security enterprise. The basic contours of the commission’s charge would be to hold hearings and report back to the next Congress with comprehensive reforms to restructure DHS and clarify its mission. This type of work is already under way with respect to cyber security, but the entire enterprise needs it.

If the situation sounds bad, it is because it is bad. It is time for Congress to act and put DHS on a sustainable foundation.

Nate Bruggeman, a lawyer and partner at the consulting firm BorderWorks Advisors, LLC, held senior policy positions with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection during the Obama administration.