December 26, 2004 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Getting Homeland Security in Order

There are reasons not to revamp congressional oversight of homeland security. They just aren't very good ones.

The House leadership plans to make its temporary Homeland Security Committee, created to provide oversight of the new department, a permanent fixture. That's a step in the right direction, but it hardly settles the issue of congressional reform. The question is, what authority should the new committee have? According to Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the answer is: not much - and none of mine.

Mr. Young's article, "Facing security challenges," offered two reasons not to trust the new committee with jurisdiction over such entities as the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Agency (the two largest in the Department of Homeland Security). For one, he says, it would make it hard to maintain the system of checks and balances we need in this area. After all, good homeland security doesn't just fight terrorism - it promotes economic growth and protects the rights of U.S. citizens.

Agreed. But the notion that consolidating jurisdiction over all the critical activities of DHS in a single committee somehow represents a threat to our safety, the Constitution and gross domestic product does not make sense.

Checks and balances restrain competing branches of government, not committee chairs. Every committee must balance multiple concerns. No one, for example, argues that the House Armed Services Committee can't be trusted with the economic and civil liberty implications of military affairs. And no one would argue that the best way to foster congressional oversight is to deprive the new committee of responsibility for almost two-thirds of DHS personnel.

Mr. Young's second argument posits that homeland security is too important to leave to a fledgling committee. Longevity, however, hardly counts for much in addressing the new security challenges of the 21st century. After all, the intelligence committees have been around for decades and they didn't prove much help in scrutinizing the status of Iraq's weapons programs before the war. And the aviation security failures that led to September 11 came on the Transportation Committee's watch.

Actually, Mr. Young's argument that the demands of security, economics and civil liberties must all be served makes the best case for consolidating responsibilities in a single committee. The example of the armed forces offers a case in point. Imagine what kind of military we would have if separate committees oversaw the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Would we ever get legislation such as the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which dramatically enhanced the ability of the services to work together on the battlefield?

Odds are, without a committee that can look holistically at the many challenges of homeland security, we will get exactly the kind of legislation Mr. Young fears - bills that neglect the imperative of making the United States free, safe and prosperous.

There's a reason the September 11 Commission argued strenuously that jurisdiction should be consolidated in a single committee. As one witness testified, the lack of effective oversight was perhaps the single greatest obstacle impeding the successful development of the department. Surely, this concern must trump other objections, including those of Mr. Young.

Opting for no change is just wrong. The House leadership knows it. Former Speakers Tom Foley and Newt Gingrich (who rarely agree on anything) know it. And the American public knows it.

The House has been on the cutting-edge of congressional innovation and responsible homeland security legislating since that terrible day in September 2001. Mr. Young, in particular, should be lauded for his work on the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. The House moved first to establish homeland-security committees. The House offered a more balanced and comprehensive package of legislative reforms in response to the September 11 Commission and held out until key changes were made in the final bill.

It would be a shame if, having led the way since September 11, House leaders fell back on preserving the status quo, rather than building a committee designed meet the challenges posed by a new and dangerous world.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow in defense at the Heritage Foundation. Paul Rosenzweig is a senior legal research fellow at the foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. They are coauthors of the forthcoming book, "Winning the Long War: Lessons From the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Liberty."

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

Paul Rosenzweig
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

First Appeared in The Washington Times