Gingrich, Foley Urging House Leaders to Make Select Security Panel Permanent in 109th Congress

Posted September 9, 2003 at 5:40pm

Two former House Speakers on Tuesday recommended that the House Homeland Security Committee be made permanent in the 109th Congress and urged Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to announce the move immediately.

“It’s important to have a sense of urgency,” ex-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who was Speaker from 1995 to 1998, testified Tuesday morning to the subcommittee on rules.

He suggested that Hastert and Pelosi agree in principle now so that the rest of the House will see that they are serious and so that the country will know it is a bipartisan decision.

Gingrich received support from a onetime nemesis, ex-Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), who was Speaker from 1989 to ’94. Foley added that the change should happen regardless of which party has control of the chamber in 2005.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the current Speaker supports making the committee permanent. As for when he would make such an announcement, Feehery said Hastert would do so “at the time that is appropriate.” Pelosi could not be immediately reached for comment.

The hearing was called by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, as Congress grapples with how to provide oversight of the new Homeland Security Department. Diaz-Balart said his subcommittee needs to determine if the select committee is hobbled by turf battles and, if so, what to do about it.

The Homeland Security panel was formed at the beginning of this Congress as a temporary, select committee to oversee the new department. It is also charged with making a recommendation to the full House as to whether the committee should continue, and in what form, in the years to come.

It is largely made up of chairmen and ranking members of other, powerful committees that each have tiny bits of oversight of the massive new department in the executive branch.

Since its inception, the select panel has been dogged by accusations that its members are preoccupied with ensuring their committees do not lose any jurisdiction to the nascent panel.

“This cannot be a political game in which committees compete to protect their turf,” said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the Homeland Security panel.

Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking member of Cox’s panel, said the House has not reorganized itself the way the executive branch did in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Fourteen committees in this House have a piece of Homeland Security; it makes it difficult to speak with one voice to the department,” Turner said.

Gingrich brought out a chart showing that 88 committees and subcommittees in both chamber — totaling 412 Members and 100 Senators — currently have some stake in oversight of the department.

“This is an obvious absurdity — if everyone has a voice, no one is responsible,” Gingrich said in his testimony.

Other former lawmakers agreed that Congress must set the tone for the department if it is to succeed in protecting the American public.

“Congress must do more than write laws — it must make sure the executive branch carries out those laws the way Congress intended,” said ex-Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.).

“The Department of Homeland Security will not succeed without sustained, constructive, comprehensive, vigorous and informed Congressional oversight,” Hamilton added.

Noting there are endless ways that terrorists could strike the United States, Hamilton urged the committee to set priorities for the department to follow so that it would know what needs protecting and which type of attacks it must be prepared to counter.

Both Gingrich and Foley suggested that the committee — once it’s made permanent — take the lead in all issues of homeland security. It should have authorizing power and work with the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security in allocating dollars to the department, they said.

Gingrich went further, saying the committee should also be able to step in and force action on issues of import to homeland security that may fall under the jurisdiction of another committee.

The witnesses agreed that Congress must shuffle duties if it is to better deal with homeland security, but ex-Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.) said lawmakers should not stop there.

“If Congress is to remain relevant to the real policy needs of the country and if Congress is to put itself in a position to lead on issues, not just follow, Congress must do the hard thing — restructure itself to respond to the demands of the 21st century American society,” Walker said.

Doing so will not be easy, Foley said. “There’s nothing more prickly and irritating to the Congressional skin than [tampering] with committee jurisdiction,” he said.

Gingrich recommended that Congress pass a joint resolution listing a select number of committees that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge would be required to appear before. Currently, all 88 panels can compel him to testify.