January 5, 2005 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Reform Congress, Improve Homeland Security

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert of Illinois says that within the next year he intends to create a permanent committee on homeland security, similar to the committees that oversee all other cabinet departments. Preparations may start as soon as this week.

That's a good idea, but now comes the hard part.

The 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress "create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security." But that seemingly simple idea is complicated by the fact that 12 standing committees in the House alone claimed jurisdiction to consider the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security.

This, incredibly, brought a sigh of relief from the White House, where aides had identified 14 full-time committees and 25 subcommittees as having jurisdiction, as well as 10 of the 13 House appropriations committees.

Because it drew members from 22 federal agencies, the new department will probably never be truly free of multiple bosses. But if the DHS is to function efficiently, Congress must establish one committee with jurisdiction over the agency, provide it with the necessary legal authorities, tools, priorities, then assess and set the goals DHS must meet to make our nation safer.

We've not yet reached the sticky part -- which will be when committee chairmen are asked to cede power they've held for years to this new committee -- but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree the day must come. Former House speakers Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Thomas Foley, D-Wash., both have endorsed creation of a permanent House committee on homeland security.

"You have to have a standing committee … and at the earliest date," Gingrich said recently. "This Congress, this House has to make clear there will be a committee and that committee will have real authority."

It's a tried-and-true formula in American governance. 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 the difficulty of managing a vast bureaucracy. But, if properly run, they bring a variety of benefits as well, including unity of purpose, a wealth of capabilities, economies of scale and a common culture.

The current arrangement, in which the department looks to the House Select Homeland Security Committee for authorization, has borne some fruit. The committee held productive hearings and rapidly assembled a capable staff with the energy, expertise and dedication that make for good oversight. The committee, led by chairman Chris Cox, R-Calif., and ranking Democrat Jim Turner of Texas, helped push through legislation to help with funding for first-responders.

But a temporary committee with unresolved jurisdiction lacks the authority to ride herd on a massive new department at a critical stage of its history -- when the nuts and bolts, such as how to deploy personnel, how to handle acquisition, and whether and how to integrate information technologies, are determined.

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. Various chieftains in Congress will be loath to cede authority.

Security will remain a cooperative government effort, but we need a Homeland Security Committee to draw together the disparate players and agencies and to infuse them with a common institutional culture and set of priorities to fight an evolving and strategic battle for a secure homeland. Today, as the 9/11 Commission put it, the lack of effective Congressional oversight is "perhaps the single greatest obstacle impeding successful development of DHS."

The global war against terrorism promises to be a protracted one. 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 Congressional organization is a good place to start.

Edwin Meese is Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation, Charles Robb is a former U.S. Senator from Virginia and David Abshire is President and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency.

About the Author

Edwin Meese III Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

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