Congress Must Reform Its Committee Structure to Meet HomelandSecurity Needs

Report Homeland Security

Congress Must Reform Its Committee Structure to Meet HomelandSecurity Needs

July 12, 2002 4 min read
Michael Scardaville
Policy Analyst

When President George W. Bush proposed the establishment of a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on June 6, he wisely recognized that this move would entail a reassessment of how the federal government operates. Now many experts expect Congress to match his leadership by establishing House and Senate standing committees on homeland security. Such consolidation of Congress's legislative and oversight authority related to homeland security will be necessary if the United States is to implement efficient homeland security policy. But doing so may prove difficult, undermining efforts to better protect the people of the United States from terror.

Congress's responsibilities related to homeland security and terrorism transcend all aspects of traditional committee authority. Indeed, the White House has identified 88 committees and subcommittees that currently exercise authority over homeland security policy. In the House, for example, at least 14 full committees and 25 separate subcommittees claim jurisdiction over some aspect of homeland security. Ten of the 13 appropriations subcommittees lay claim to a portion of homeland security expenditures. Frequently, jurisdictions overlap. This mix of dispersed jurisdiction and authority creates wasteful inefficiencies, including joint and sequential referrals of legislation and redundant oversight hearings. Just since the President's announcement last month, there have been 50 committee and subcommittee hearings on homeland security.

With the new Department of Homeland Security due to become a reality by the end of the year, vital homeland security efforts could languish if this committee system is not reformed. Concurrent referrals of legislation to multiple committees with overlapping jurisdictions mean that DHS officials will spend untold hours briefing numerous committees. Moreover, with oversight authority divided among so many committees, DHS officials are likely to find themselves responding to a multitude of inquiries in an effort to obtain Congress's blessing for day-to-day functions. Clearly, developing solutions to the nation's security problems is a far more effective use of their time than delivering the same message to these committees.

Some progress has already been made toward improving Congress's ability to legislate and provide oversight for homeland security policy. On June 19, the House established a Select Committee on Homeland Security to draft the final legislation establishing the DHS. House Resolution 449 setting up this committee requires its dissolution after the bill it drafts is signed by the President. While the resolution also notes that this committee's creation should not be interpreted as altering the jurisdiction of any current standing committee, its very formation shows that Congress cannot efficiently manage vital homeland security issues under the current structure.

Time for Reform

 House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX) has indicated that any decision to reform Congress will be deferred at least until the DHS has been established, and potentially until Congress's next session begins in 2003. When Congress finally chooses to address its own structural deficiencies, the battle over jurisdictional authority is likely to be explosive. A number of committee and subcommittee chairmen in both houses have expressed vocal opposition to transferring any of their oversight authority for homeland security operations.

Putting off the needed reforms too long, however, would be unwise. For the new DHS to achieve maximum efficiency as quickly as possible, Congress must take prompt steps to restructure the committee system. The DHS Secretary cannot effect a rapid transition to a new bureaucratic culture if his staff must spend most of their time responding to the inquiries of 88 committees and subcommittees and wait while any of 535 Members of the House and Senate try to add earmarks to urgent legislation.

As Congress debates the structure of the new department, it should also begin reforming its committee configuration so as not to impede homeland security. Specifically, it should:

  • Establish new committees on homeland security. The leadership in both houses should establish permanent, standing authorizing committees on homeland security, with sole authority for the functions absorbed by the DHS. Existing committees that now have jurisdiction should relinquish that authority to the new committee, and the Rules of the House of Representatives and the Standing Rules of the Senate should be changed accordingly. The Select Committees on Intelligence should oversee the intelligence functions of the DHS because of the classified nature of the information.

    In areas where multiple agencies continue to share responsibility for functions such as research related to chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) attacks, each standing committee on homeland security should, in practice, be designated the committee of primary jurisdiction. The committees on homeland security should then establish subcommittees that parallel the DHS's core responsibilities: infrastructure protection; domestic preparedness; CBRN defense research; border security; maritime and transportation security; state and local coordination; and personnel and management.

  • Establish appropriations subcommittees on homeland security. The Appropriations Committees of both houses also should establish subcommittees on homeland security. Having single permanent standing committees would simplify the congressional oversight and authorization process. If the current Appropriations Committees are not similarly reformed, every year the DHS budget would be subject to review and interference by 10 appropriations subcommittees in each house. Such complexity will retard the pace of the appropriations process and invite excessive congressional micromanagement of routine agency functions. Creating one homeland security appropriations subcommittee for the DHS budget would simplify the process and provide much-needed transparency concerning homeland security expenditures.


Streamlining the legislative process for homeland security must be one of Congress's top priorities. Establishing authorizing standing committees with appropriations subcommittees on homeland security would allow the new Department of Homeland Security to work with one central committee in each house. Failure to do so will put at risk both the new department and future homeland security efforts. With the creation of the DHS, Congress must continue its vital oversight and legislative roles in homeland security, but these functions must be carried out in a balanced and commonsense manner. This cannot be achieved under the current fractured committee structure.

Michael Scardaville is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Michael Scardaville

Policy Analyst