May 27, 2014 by David Olive
A full page Wall Street Journal ad last week, signed by 61 former elected and administration officials, including all three previous DHS Secretaries, added a number of new voices to the almost decade-old message that Congress needs to “fix” the overlapping committee structure morass it created to oversee homeland security issues.
The ad, published May 21, boldly proclaimed that the mis-mash of congressional jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security means, “the nation is not as safe as it could and should be.” The language is based on the Task Force Report on Streamlining and Consolidating Congressional Oversight of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, issued on September 11, 2013 by Annenberg and Aspen.
The message is absolutely right. Let that sink in for a minute. Unfocused congressional oversight is making us less safe.
Arranged by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program, the ad’s message was clear: having more than 100 congressional committees, subcommittees and other groups claim jurisdiction over the DHS results in “political paralysis, so key security issues are not being properly overseen by Congress.”
According to an Annenberg press statement, the 61 signatories include the three past Secretaries of Homeland Security; all the members of the 9/11 Commission; former heads of the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former members of Congress; and former homeland security advisors to Presidents. These are not just names on a page. Each individual had to deal with congressional dysfunction and knows first-hand what impact it has on keeping America safe and secure.
These powerful voices are a welcome addition to those of us who have written previously on the problem of overlapping jurisdiction of congressional committees (including myself and the Heritage Foundation’s Jessica Zuckerman). What makes this ad and these names different is that they have joined together in a single theme to Congress: you have created a serious problem, and it is time for you to act and fix it!
Unfortunately members of Congress, and their leadership, have little incentive to change the current system because today most members need more than a “good government” reason to give up jurisdiction over a department whose portfolio covers so much of an American’s life.
The changes the 9/11 Commission recommended will require congressional leaders who are willing to stand up to their colleagues’ personal preferences and make an unselfish decision, bringing much-needed focus to oversight. Previously, neither Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi nor John Boehner have been willing to do so. Perhaps last week’s ad will cause the issue to be revisited and, if we are fortunate, committee jurisdiction will be consolidated into a workable system beginning with the next session of Congress.
Should that change occur, we can thank Annenberg and Aspen for providing the final push this issue has needed. If it does not change, then I hope other organizations (say organizations that start with the letter “B” or “C”) will take up the fight that Annenberg and Aspen have rekindled.