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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.

"Different committees see different opportunities to get their moment in the sun," said House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), who is holding a hearing on the oversight problem today. He and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have introduced a bill to revive the 9/11 commission to examine the progress made on its recommendations.

King and his Senate counterpart, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), have repeatedly tried to consolidate authority under their respective committees, to no avail.

In 2004, Lieberman joined his Republican colleagues Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine) in an effort to tighten oversight. They called for a model similar to that for the Department of Defense, which falls almost entirely under the jurisdiction of the Armed Services committees.

"What followed was death by amendment, as other committee leaders came to the floor and pulled out 'their' pieces of the department," Collins, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security panel, said in a statement prepared for Roll Call.

Outside groups have echoed their calls for reform. In 2008, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism created by President George W. Bush gave Congress a grade of "F" for failing to streamline oversight. The commission's former leader, Randall Larsen, told Roll Call that he would now issue "an F-minus."

Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit watchdog group, has called for oversight to "reduce waste, fraud and abuse." Last month, the conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report on homeland security blaming the oversight problem on both parties and calling for consolidation under the Homeland Security, Intelligence and Appropriations committees.

Yet not everyone on Capitol Hill is eager to see consolidation.

Justin Harclerode, spokesman for House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), defended the panel's authority over FEMA, the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"The mission of both [the Department of Homeland Security] and the Transportation Committee is to ensure safe transportation for American citizens," Harclerode said. "DHS is no different than many other federal departments that report to a number of Congressional oversight committees."

Likewise, Erica Chabot, spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said the department's immigration matters rightly fall under Leahy's purview.

The turf war makes it unlikely that major changes are coming anytime soon. But the WMD commission's Larsen said committee staffers can and should coordinate informally to fast-track bills on national security.

"Our best hope of progress is staff and certain Members serving as leaders to work around a dysfunctional system," he said.

In their recent report, Hamilton and 9/11 commission Chairman Thomas Kean called for a more permanent solution, and they placed the onus on Congressional leadership.

"They have to step in forcibly and say the national security of the country demands that oversight be done in an integrated way," Hamilton said.

Though he agreed with Hamilton, King said he understands "the spot the Congressional leaders are in" because time and political capital spent on any reorganization would distract from other priorities.

In the meantime, King said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has helped strengthen the Homeland Security Committee by giving it primary jurisdiction over matters such as the restructuring of FEMA.

"We have to start making steps," King said. "The further we get from Sept. 11, every homeland security issue becomes more difficult."

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