Homeland Security

Congress Heal Thyself

By Paul Rosenzweig
Monday, October 10, 2016, 3:06 PM

As I noted last month, the oldest outstanding recommendation, unfulfilled since the 9/11 Commission report, is for Congress to fix its jurisdicitional morass and provide effective, unified oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. Groups ranging from the Aspen Institute, the Bipartisan Policy Council and Heritage have all advocated for the change. Yet today DHS still reports to more than 100 subcommittees of Congress and they are rebuffed every time they seek relief.  The case for reform is compelling -- indeed, we make the same argument every two years to seemingly no avail.  Once again the Annenberg Public Policy Center is issuing a bipartisan call for reform.

The need is palpable.  Congress can exercise one of its strongest roles in protecting Americans through clear, direct oversight of homeland security. The 100 committees and subcommittees that currently claim jurisdiction over the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are three times as many as supervise the Defense Department -- this despite the fact that DoD is an order of magnitude larger than DHS. Fragmented Congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security leaves our nation more vulnerable than it might otherwise be to the threat of cyber-, biological, and chemical attack.  To cite but one example, DHS is now entering its 13th year of operation and it has never been authorized by passage of a bill.  Consider that -- more than $60 billion per year is spent without formal authorization by Congress.  And the reason for that is simple -- no less than 7 full committees would have to pass on such authorization; a number far too great to contemplate.

NOW is the time fo Congress to act.  The Republican majority is in the process of considering a Rules package for the next Congress (assuming they retain the majority).  Drafts will be passed and decisions made in the weeks immediately after the election when the Conference gathers.  If Speaker Ryan wants to show leadership and do one thing and one thing only to make America safer -- and more well govered by law -- this is it.  If he doesn't the chances are strong that DHS will remain unauthorized until 2020 (given that this is Chairman McCaul's last term as head of the Committee on Homeland Security) and that will be nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks.  As the Annenberg Center reported two years ago: "Failure to reform DHS oversight may be invisible to the public, it is not without consequence or risk. Fragmented [Congresssional] jurisdiction impedes DHS’ ability to deal with three major vulnerabilities: the threats posed by small aircraft and boats; cyberattacks; and biological weapons."  What was true 10 years ago is even more true today.

And the sad truth is that there is no good reason not to fix this problem.  The only thing that impedes action is the selfish self-interest of Committee Chairs who don't want to lose a piece of their precious pie.  If another attack occurs I have no doubt that some of the blame will come to rest at Congress's door -- and with real justificiation.