David Olive

Nov 8, 2010

From the time the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) came into existence in 2003, questions have been raised over how Congress should organize its oversight responsibilities. Initially, the U.S. House created a Select Committee on Homeland Security. After a year, the House created the current Committee on Homeland Security (HCHS), but bowing to the whining of old bull chairmen of committees that previously had jurisdiction over agencies placed into DHS, Congress did not consolidate oversight jurisdiction in the new committee. Rather, a “patchwork quilt” of overlapping opportunities for micromanagement of DHS was allowed to continue – and the resulting assertion of jurisdiction by over 100 committees and subcommittees in Congress has been universally criticized by the 9-11 Commission and almost every major think tank and policy commentator.

Now, the Heritage Foundation has weighed in with a proposal authored by Paul Rosensweig, Jena McNeil and James Carafano (who all also contribute to Security Debrief), that provides a constructive way to reorganize congressional oversight rather than simply criticize the failure to do so by previous congressional leaders. It is a proposal that ought to get very serious study by the incoming House Republican leadership.  

There are a number of factors that should recommend the Heritage Foundation’s approach now that some of the political obstacles have been removed. First, the defeat of Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Democrat’s chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, jealously protected his committee’s oversight of the Coast Guard and TSA, means that a prominent critic of consolidated oversight has been silenced.  Second, that the next Speaker, Rep. John Boehner, told Rep. Peter King, who expects to lead the HCHS during the next Congress, that he favors the “spirit and concept” of consolidated jurisdiction – something that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi would never do, despite her rhetorical support for congressional adoption of the 9-11 Commission recommendations. The only one she did not support (although never publicly saying so) was fixing the jurisdictional mishmash.

The Heritage Foundation recommends the reduction of oversight of DHS to three committees in the House and three in the Senate. In each body there would be a main oversight committee, an appropriations committee and a Select Committee on Intelligence who would exercise jurisdiction. This would permit meaningful oversight without crippling the department’s ability to perform its mission.

Streamlined oversight does not mean an absence of oversight. As the Heritage report states:

“Strong homeland security oversight is both proper and necessary. Furthermore, the oversight problem is more than one of workload for the department, despite the fact that the workload of responding to more than 100 committee and subcommittees has become at times overwhelming. This debilitating proliferation of congressional review has significant adverse effects on national security: It frustrates the ability of Congress to provide guidance on how the homeland security enterprise should operate while draining precious departmental resources.”

As the new House leadership meets over the next few weeks, and as newly elected members come to Washington, DC for orientation sessions, I hope that the Heritage report will get serious attention. Senate leadership, although it is not expected to change, has a similar opportunity to make meaningful changes in committee structure. Both congressional bodies have an opportunity to adopt a “change that we can all believe in.” When the organizational rules are adopted in January, let us hope that the final open recommendation of the 9-11 Commission will be adopted and the issue of oversight jurisdiction of DHS will be one for the history books.

Editor’s Note: David Olive served on a working group that advised the authors of the Heritage Foundation WebMemo, Stopping the Chaos: A Proposal for Reorganization of Congressional Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, published November 4, 2010.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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