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Oversight Confusion Hinders Security Policy

Progress Report Says Too Many Committees With Jurisdiction Lead to ‘Conflicting Guidance’

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Peter King chairs his chamber’s committee with primary jurisdiction over homeland security issues.

Seven years ago, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, popularly known as the 9/11 commission, said Congress had too many committees with oversight authority for the Department of Homeland Security, creating a bureaucratic web that impaired security policy.

Since then, Congress has made matters worse.

The commission's report noted 86 committees and subcommittees with some jurisdictional claim and recommended "a single, principal point of oversight and review."

While Congress created committees in each chamber with primary jurisdiction over much of the homeland security apparatus, it did not rein in other panels' claims to a slice of the pie.

The result: Oversight responsibility has extended to more than 100 Congressional panels, including the Senate Aging Committee.

"The result is that DHS receives conflicting guidance and Congress lacks one picture of how that enormous organization is functioning," the heads of the 9/11 commission wrote in a progress report released last week.

Streamlining jurisdiction is a key way that Congress could bolster security and cut costs, former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), vice chairman of the commission, said in an interview. But he doubts the situation will change.

"When you're talking about changing jurisdictions, you're talking about taking power away from some committees," Hamilton said. "That is a very difficult thing to do in Congress because the name of the game is power, and people don't like to give it up."

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that it spends $10 million annually preparing Congressional briefings and hearing testimony. As of Aug. 12, department officials said they had testified at 119 hearings and issued 1,745 briefings this year, 35 percent more briefings than the DHS had issued by the same time last year.

"This is not just a nuisance," former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last month at a policy event where he joined DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in railing against the system. "This really affects the ability to execute a coherent, comprehensive strategy for homeland security."

Chertoff said committees that have no homeland security focus the Agriculture or Small Business panels, for example risk directing DHS agencies in a way that conflicts with broader national security strategy.

The origin of the problem dates to the birth of the Department of Homeland Security, the year after the Sept. 11 attacks. As Congress consolidated more than 20 agencies including the Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Coast Guard the committees overseeing them fought to retain control.

Those interests have only become further entrenched with time. And Members of Congress like having a say over homeland security and the programs such as grants for first responder equipment that are popular back home.

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