Congressional committee power erodes homeland security


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now the largest law enforcement department in the federal government. 

With more than 240,000 employees across 14 component agencies whose missions range from law enforcement operations to national disaster response, border protection, health protection and countering weapons of mass destruction, the DHS is one of the few in the federal government that is multi-missioned with broad, sometimes conflicting and vast mandates. 

Which is part of the reason why six former secretaries and acting secretaries of Homeland Security recently penned a letter to congressional leadership requesting that Congress act and vastly reduce the 90 committees and subcommittees of oversight that the DHS now reports to. By comparison, the Department of Defense (DOD) reports to 30 congressional committees and subcommittees.

Back in 2010, former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an NPR interview that DHS officials spend enormous amounts of time (from 2007-2008 that totaled 5,000 briefings and 370 hearings) preparing for congressional hearings and delivering research reports to members, which can defeat the purpose of congressional oversight, “either the department has no guidance or, more likely, the department ignores both because they’re in conflict. And so, the department does what it wants to do.”

The letter states that the consolidation is necessary to address a major problem for the DHS — its inability to get congressional approval for much-needed reforms and program authorizations. The “Game of Thrones” approach that the department has had to contend with makes negotiating with Congress so difficult that Congress has not passed a DHS authorization bill since 2003, just after the establishment of the department. 

The DHS was founded in November of 2002. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 pulled together 169,000 federal employees from other agencies as diverse as FEMA, the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs Services and U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service. Under this new federal department, these agencies were supposed to fit into one of three missions: preventing terrorist attacks; reducing America’s vulnerability to terrorism; and minimizing the damage and recovering from attacks. The proposal also stipulated four divisions that agencies would operate under: Border and Transportation Security; Emergency Preparedness and Response; Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection; and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures.

To do this, the agencies that personnel were pulled from included the U.S. Departments of the Treasury, Justice, Transportation and parts of other departments including Health and Human Services and Energy. In total, the 22 agencies brought in to form the DHS have legacy attachments to jurisdictions, missions and congressional mandates. For example, the U.S. Secret Service had been under the Treasury Department with jurisdiction including the investigation of financial crimes. Under Treasury, congressional committees covering Judiciary and Financial Crimes had some oversight over aspects of the U.S. Secret Service operations.  

When it was merged into DHS, those legacy oversight committees never relinquished their aspect of oversight of that agency. Now, add in DHS and new DHS committees in Congress and each agency and the DHS automatically absorb those congressional committees legacy oversight roles. Essentially, while federal departments lost agencies to the DHS, Congress lost nothing and actually increased its level of oversight by adding additional committees for the newly created DHS to report to. 

In an Annenberg Policy Institute report it said that no other department spends as much time as the DHS on Capitol Hill. It also said that congressional oversight is most constructive when a congressional committee builds expertise and is in a position to see the big picture, ensuring that existing legislation is implemented properly and new legislation responds  to evolving threats. But that expertise is lacking when 90 Committees share jurisdiction and oversight of the department and each is focused on a small piece of the DHS versus the entire homeland security operational matrix.  

Those threats include taking on Russian and Iranian use of cyberspace to target American elections,  responding to COVID-19 and future pandemics and the continued threat from domestic and international terrorists. According to the secretaries, each of these major threats involve DHS headquarters and eight or more DHS components, which fall under the jurisdiction of seven or more major congressional committees in each body of Congress.

In the secretaries’ view, if the DOD had the same oversight structure, they would never be able to fight a war. For the DOD, both the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services have sole jurisdiction of the DOD under a “common defense” mandate. Their recommendation is to create a similar “common homeland security generally” mandate for a single DHS authorizing committee that could essentially override all other committees’ jurisdictions.

This overuse and disparate congressional oversight for DHS has made it too political by forcing it to cater to different congressional agendas and committee priorities that may or may not be in line with the overarching DHS mission.   

Several members of Congress seem to agree including current House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said during a hearing that he feels those recommendations have merit and would like to see them acted on before the end of this year. 

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, DHS was created to fill the void of an uncoordinated homeland security. Since then, the department has had to learn and change as the threats against our nation have evolved. Congress should prioritize our national security over the desires of various committees that merely want to retain the power of oversight.

Donald J. Mihalek is a retired senior Secret Service Regional Training, tactics and firearms instructor. He also serves as the executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

Tags Bennie Thompson congressional committees Congressional oversight cyber security DHS Election Security Homeland security Homeland Security Act Michael Chertoff National security oversight

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