Homeland Security

Streamlining Congressional Oversight of DHS

By Paul Rosenzweig
Monday, April 2, 2018, 8:00 AM

Since the Department of Homeland Security was formed in 2002, one singular feature has been the proliferation of congressional oversight. Estimates vary, but at last count well more than 100 different subcommittees have some portion of jurisdiction over DHS. This is not a rational state of affairs.

It isn’t as though the problem is a secret either. I first wrote about it in 2010 (a mere eight years ago). And I’m not the only one. It has been the subject of multiple reports (the Annenberg Public Policy Center's “Homeland Confusion,” for example). And this task-force report cites dozens of other groups making similar recommendations. Frankly, the calls for reform (which originated with the 9/11 Commission) have grown so frequent and been so frequently disregarded that I had come to despair of anything ever happening. The last time I wrote about this for Lawfare was in 2014.

But hope springs eternal, and sometimes persistence is its own reward. The House has passed its first ever DHS authorization bill (the Department of Homeland Security has gone 15 years without one, whereas the Pentagon gets one every year). The most recent version in the Senate—in the nature of a substitute—is awaiting floor action, and there actually is some prospect of it revising the long-standing logjam of congressional oversight. The bill would establish a special legislative commission, composed of six appointed members, to consider how congressional oversight of DHS might be streamlined. Specifically, the commmission would be tasked with “making recommendations on how congressional committee jurisdictions in the Senate and House of Representatives could be modified to promote homeland security and the efficiency and congressional oversight of the Department.”

Would it be effective? Who knows? Perhaps nothing can break the logjam of vested jurisdictional interests. But it is worth the effort—and that’s why two former homeland security secretaries (Michael Chertoff and Jeh Johnson) have gone on record urging the Senate to adopt the authorization bill and establish the commission. They are right.