The New Congress Must Reform Its Committee Structure to MeetHomeland Security Needs

Report Homeland Security

The New Congress Must Reform Its Committee Structure to MeetHomeland Security Needs

November 12, 2002 9 min read
Michael Scardaville
Former Policy Analyst
Michael served as a Policy Analyst for The Heritage Foundation

Since President George W. Bush proposed the establishment of a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on June 6, the congressional debate in the Senate has largely focused not on how the restructuring would protect Americans, but on how it would affect federal employees.1 Though the President and Congress wisely recognize that change is necessary to improve how the federal government ensures homeland security, the need for government reform extends beyond the federal bureaucracy.

To implement a coordinated homeland security policy, the complex and overlapping congressional committee system that oversees the relevant agencies and departments must be reformed. The convening of the 108th Congress provides the best opportunity to accomplish this vital step.

Congress's responsibilities related to homeland security and terrorism transcend all aspects of its traditional committee authority. Indeed, the White House has identified 88 committees and subcommittees that currently exercise authority over homeland security policy.2 In the House, for example, at least 14 full committees and 25 separate subcommittees claim jurisdiction over some aspect of homeland security.3 Ten of the 13 appropriations subcommittees lay claim to a portion of homeland security expenditures. Moreover, committee jurisdictions frequently 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 in June, there have been at least 75 committee and subcommittee hearings on homeland security.

Regardless of when the Department of Homeland Security becomes a reality, Congress will likely have to take additional legislative and oversight actions during the period of transition from the current system. Without reform of its committee structure, vital homeland security efforts--including the operational development of the DHS--are likely to languish. Concurrent referrals of legislation to multiple committees with overlapping jurisdiction mean that DHS officials will have to spend untold hours briefing numerous committees.

Moreover, with oversight authority divided among so many committees, DHS officials may find themselves responding to a multitude of inquiries just to obtain Congress's blessing for day-to-day functions. Clearly, developing and implementing solutions to the nation's security problems is a far more effective use of their time than delivering the same message to different committees. Reforming the congressional committee structure will prove key to effective homeland security.

The Disjointed Committee System

The congressional debate on legislation to establish the DHS illustrated the cost of the disjointed committee system. The House recognized that its standing rules would dramatically slow passage of any legislation to establish the new department. It created a temporary Select Committee on Homeland Security to process the legislation (H.R. 5005) and gave it sole authority for debating and amending the bill, which the full House would vote on.

The House leadership allowed all other committees to hold hearings and amend the initial draft, but this process was only to advise the Select Committee prior to its deliberations. When the Select Committee met for mark up, it reviewed the President's proposed legislation, not the opinions of the other committees. Adopting this process allowed the House to focus on homeland security issues that directly affect the proposed department and to move quickly to pass legislation acceptable to the President. It did so on June 26, 2002.

The Senate, on the other hand, relied on its existing committee system with disastrous results. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was assigned responsibility for reviewing and amending the bill prior to floor debate. The committee did not finish this process until after the House had already passed its legislation. After two months of debate in the full Senate, the bill has stalled. Also, instead of focusing on the many issues directly related to homeland security or the operation of the new department, the Senate allowed the debate to become hijacked by union special interests.

Even if the Senate passes legislation during a lame duck session in November or December, the slow pace of the process in the Senate already has delayed the establishment of the new department, and it is likely to lengthen the duration of the transition period significantly. While many considerations contributed to this chain of events in the Senate, the committee's lack of focus on homeland security-related issues is surely one of the more avoidable.

While the Select Committee proved successful in moving H.R. 5005 through the House, House Resolution 449 setting up the Select Committee requires its dissolution after the President signs the DHS bill. The resolution notes that this committee's creation should not be interpreted as altering the jurisdiction of any current standing committee. Nonetheless, the Select Committee's very formation and the experience of the past five months show that Congress cannot efficiently manage vital homeland security issues under the current committee structure.

The Need to Reform the Appropriations Committees

As with the DHS debate, the manner in which the President's fiscal year (FY) 2003 budget request for homeland security has been divided provides a compelling illustration of the need to reform the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

The President's budget request is currently divided into at least seven appropriations bills (Commerce/State/Justice; Defense; Agriculture; Energy; Transportation; Health and Human Services; and Foreign Operations). Each of these bills falls under the authority of a separate appropriations subcommittee.

The division becomes even more striking when one looks at each initiative in the budget request. The President's first responder initiative and bioterrorism program are divided between two bills, while funding for his border security and technology agendas is included in five bills.

Requiring the comptroller of DHS to review nearly every appropriations bill to determine the department's budget will prove cumbersome and inhibit transparency. Indeed, it is already difficult to track homeland security spending from pre-September 11 levels to the FY 2003 budget because programs are mired in the budgets of many agencies and nearly as many appropriations bills. In some cases, separate budget categories for homeland security spending do not even exist. For instance, federal cyber-security spending is typically not distinct from general information technology procurement.

Having a piece of DHS's budget in nearly every appropriations bill could inhibit its programs as they wait for the numerous budgets to be passed before they can begin operating. Further, the diffusion of funds across many budgets will make the DHS less accountable for how it spends tax dollars, since studying its budget will remain labor intensive.

Time for Major Congressional Reform

House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX) had indicated previously that any decision to reform Congress would be deferred at least until the DHS had been established, and potentially until the 2003 session. While the DHS remains mired in Senate politics, the 107th Congress is coming to a close, and new rules will soon be written for the 108th Congress.

This means Congress will have the best opportunity of all to reform itself by restructuring its committees to provide better homeland security oversight. Postponing action until later in the session could prove more explosive than tackling it in the beginning of the session as the rules are being written and before Members become entrenched in their old committee assignments.

Putting off the needed reforms also would be unwise. 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, or wait while any of 535 Members of the House and Senate try to add earmarks to a piece of urgent legislation.

For the new DHS to achieve maximum efficiency as quickly as possible, Congress must take prompt steps to restructure the committee system. Specifically, the new leadership of both houses of the 108th Congress 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. 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 will 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; research and development; 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 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, the DHS budget each year 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 in each house for the DHS budget would simplify the process and provide much needed transparency concerning homeland security expenditures.

  • Initially assign members to the committees based on their expertise. It has been suggested that a new committee be modeled on the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence. Members of these committees are drawn from the standing committees that have oversight authority over the federal agencies in the intelligence community.

    In the Senate, the committees on Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Judiciary, and Appropriations put members on the Select Committee on Intelligence. In the House, they come from the committees on Armed Services, International Relations, Judiciary, and Appropriations. Members of the 108th Congress should be assigned to the new homeland security committees in this fashion to ensure that they are experienced with the programs and issues relevant to DHS. This approach could make the reform more politically acceptable to existing committee members who are concerned about losing oversight over some issues.

    This arrangement, however, should not be permanent or codified in the rules of the committees. Homeland security is a national priority and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future; its own institutions and constituency in Congress should be developed. When the 109th Congress convenes, the leaderships should make assignments to the homeland security committees in the same manner they do for other committees. Members should be selected for their knowledge and commitment to homeland security as an independent issue, not their experience with related matters under the jurisdiction of other committees.


The convening of a new Congress provides an opportunity for the House and Senate leadership to streamline the legislative process for homeland security as part of the rules process. Establishing authorizing committees with appropriations subcommittees on homeland security would enable the new Department of Homeland Security to work with one central committee in each chamber. Failure to do so will put at risk both the new department and future homeland security efforts.

With the creation of the new DHS, Congress will need to continue its vital oversight and legislative roles in homeland security, but 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.

1. David Reinhard, "AWOL on Homeland Security," The Oregonian, October 17, 2002.

2. The White House, "Press Secretary's Morning Conversation with Reporters." June 6, 2002, at

3. Michael Scardaville and Jack Spencer, "9/11 One Year Later: Progress and Promise," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1584, September 10, 2002.


Michael Scardaville

Former Policy Analyst