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Dysfunctional oversight undermines security

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As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) faces threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al Qaeda, White House security failures and the high turnover rate of its staff, the department’s ability to confront these challenges is hobbled by a more mundane threat: dysfunctional congressional oversight. Today, more than 100 congressional committees and subcommittees exercise oversight over DHS.

When Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and combined 22 agencies into the department, it gave scant attention to oversight. While it created a Homeland Security Committee in each House, Congress left intact legacy committees’ jurisdiction over the agencies. Today DHS agencies lack consolidated oversight of their critical missions. 

{mosads}The DHS Office of Intelligence & Analysis reviews threat information and alerts the department and its stakeholders of potential dangers. The U.S. Coast Guard defends our ports, coasts and waterways. The Federal Emergency Management Agency responds to disasters. The U.S. Secret Service protects the president. Yet in the House of Representatives, the Committee on Homeland Security has primary jurisdiction over none of these DHS agencies. In fact, of the department’s seven operational components, the House committee has primary jurisdiction over just two.

With the Secret Service’s missteps dominating headlines, one would hope that Congress is undertaking a rational approach to addressing the agency’s shortcomings through robust oversight and, if necessary, policy prescriptions. But because the Homeland Security Committee does not have jurisdiction over the Secret Service, the panel is forced to compete with others that assert their authority over the agency with impunity. For example, it was the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, rather than the Homeland Security Committee, that held the spirited hearing on the Secret Service earlier this week. And subsequently the dueling committee chairmen separately proposed independent reviews of the agency.

The result of dispersed oversight is disjointed policy. Indeed, Congress has not enacted a single DHS authorization bill since the formation of the department more than a decade ago.

The 9/11 Commission highlighted this concern a decade ago in its final report, stating that a single congressional committee was needed to provide effective oversight of the department. And the commission emphasized the point: “Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important.” In its recent 10th anniversary report, the commission noted that this remains the only of its recommendations yet unfulfilled.

And the 9/11 Commission wasn’t the first to raise concern. Even prior to 9/11, the Gilmore Commission, Bremer Commission and Hart-Rudman Commission each called attention to the dysfunctional congressional committee structure.

While the Senate Homeland Security Committee is more complacent with its (admittedly more favorable) situation, the chairman of the House committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), appears ready to challenge the status quo in the House. He intends to introduce a DHS authorization bill in the next Congress, but without jurisdictional overhaul, the prospects for such a bill remain dim.

In a letter to McCaul on the recent 9/11 anniversary, three former secretaries of Homeland Security encouraged the chairman to seek the jurisdiction they believe is necessary for the panel — and the department — to be successful. McCaul subsequently submitted a statement to the House Rules Committee explaining how the current dysfunctional oversight structure impedes his committee’s ability to oversee and authorize the department’s activities.

The byzantine approach to congressional oversight has tangible implications for the department, and the nation. A recent Aspen Institute/Annenberg Public Policy Center study found that during the 112th Congress, 400 DHS officials testified 289 times before lawmakers. And in 2009 alone, congressional inquiries consumed 66 work-years of effort for the department. This is time that DHS could have otherwise spent securing the border, improving intelligence analysis or engaging in other meaningful actions to protect the American public.

When asked about this at a recent hearing, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson responded: “I do agree that when I have 108 committees and subcommittees of Congress performing an oversight function, it takes a lot of time to deal with all of the oversight, which detracts from the core mission that I think you want me to pay attention to.”

Congress should act now to rationalize homeland security oversight. Doing so will alleviate DHS of an unnecessary burden and allow the department, together with its oversight committee, to more effectively address its own organizational challenges and confront the threats our nation faces.

Kaniewski was special assistant to the president for Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow at The George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute. His Twitter handle is @dankandc

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