March 30, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Permanent Oversight For DHS

A year after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the leadership of the House of Representatives continues to ponder whether it needs a permanent committee to oversee the department. It should stop pondering. The answer is yes.

Without such a committee, meaningful congressional oversight of the mammoth department is impossible. Consider this: When Congress took up the legislation that would create the Department of Homeland Security, it was referred to 12-count 'em, 12-standing committees in the House. The White House let out a sigh of relief. It had identified 14 full-time committees and 25 subcommittees as having jurisdiction, as well as 10 of the 13 House appropriation committees.

The new department, drawn as it is from 22 federal agencies, never will be truly free of multiple bosses. But Congress can and must act to limit its own organizational inefficiencies. Otherwise, we'll continue to see absurdities such as two different committees referring the same legislation to the full floor, others conducting redundant oversight hearings and others over-analyzing everything.

The task, though obviously needed, won't be easy to accomplish. Various responsibilities for domestic security continue to touch every federal agency and cut across national programs.

Although security can and will remain a cooperative government effort, we need a Homeland Security Committee to draw together the disparate players and agencies, infuse them with a common institutional culture and set of priorities and assess and set the priorities for what it takes to make our nation safe.

The same thinking went into the 1947 National Security Act, which consolidated key assets into one big, powerful organization and created the means to orchestrate the new Department of Defense's efforts with other federal activities. Large, centralized organizations have drawbacks, the most obvious being managing a vast bureaucracy. But they bring a variety of benefits as well, including unity of purpose, a wealth of capabilities, economies of scale and a common culture.

The easy work has been done in terms of consolidating the various agencies that make up the new department. What's left is tougher. We're down to creating the nuts and bolts of a new department-what to do with the people, how to handle acquisition and whether and how to integrate information technologies. Oversight of these activities requires a full-time, dedicated committee in both houses of Congress.

The House Select Homeland Security Committee has demonstrated the value of centralizing oversight. The committee held productive hearings and rapidly assembled a capable staff with the energy, expertise and dedication that make for good oversight. Recently, the committee approved legislation that would help with funding for first-responders. This is the kind of leadership a true, full committee could show on these issues.

The global war against terrorism will go on for an extended period of time. The Department of Homeland Security must be there, ready to protect Americans today, tomorrow and 25 years from now. We need a Congress properly organized for that. What we don't need is too many cooks working on the broth, too many departments and committees with jurisdiction over this aspect of homeland security or that. The whole purpose of creating the department was to merge functions, change cultures and better focus the government on the task at hand.

Cohesive oversight is a good place to start.

James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow in defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based research institute.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

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