December 15, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Security oversight seen running amok

More than seven years have passed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And that's just the problem.

As 9/11 fades in memory, Congress increasingly returns to its former ways on security.

Lawmakers wind up practicing the old constituent politics, promoting individual agendas rather than working to ensure the safety of America as a whole. And every year that sad day retreats further into the past, it gets worse.

In a way, congressional inaction is the greatest threat to homeland security the nation faces today. Dealing with it will be one of the new administration's toughest tasks.

One overriding lesson of Sept. 11 was that Washington had not kept up with the times. For years, politicians had treated issues in piecemeal fashion, with authority and responsibility "stovepiped" into little fiefdoms. Everyone was king. Everyone had his or her own little piece of the pie. That was fine until the U.S. faced national challenges that required everyone to pull together for the common good.

The congressionally mandated 9/11 commission identified a litany of ills, from failure to "connect the dots" to the lack of a national capacity to deal with catastrophic dangers.

Yet while Congress genuflected at the commission's report as if it were some kind of holy writ, one key recommendation was conspicuously ignored. The commission stressed the need to consolidate oversight in the newly established homeland security committees in the House and Senate.

Today, about 100 committees, subcommittees and other entities claim oversight of various aspects of the department's operations. Dealing with this congressional chaos is a real challenge, according to the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security.

"Much to my dismay, this recommendation on streamlining oversight has gone largely unheeded," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff lamented in 2007. "We face a situation that I would describe as oversight run amok."

Security oversight seen running amok

So why does Congress allow this? Because changing the oversight situation to fit with the commission's recommendation would rankle the many committee chairmen - members who might (gasp!) see the authority and prestige of their fiefdoms diminished. And that's unacceptable, even if it leaves the nation less safe.

And it looks like they are it again.

There are plans to introduce legislation in the new Congress to strip the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from the Department of Homeland Security. Regardless of what anyone thought of FEMA's performance after Hurricane Katrina, the fact remains that, today, FEMA is fixed.

It has just experienced its busiest and most challenging year since 2005 - back-to-back hurricanes, 500-year floods in the Midwest and wildfires in California. A year of response with hardly any headlines - because FEMA works better today. Why? In large measure, it's because FEMA is part of DHS.

We have more than enough evidence that FEMA operates more effectively within the department. Yet there are still shrill voices that want to strip it out - and some members of Congress are willing to listen to them. They can't resist the pull of the old constituent politics.

One of the greatest shortfalls in disaster response before 9/11 was that law enforcement and emergency management communities hardly talked to each other. Each had its own fiefdom and its own stakeholders on Capitol Hill.

Now they want to go back to the old days. Emergency managers want their own department, with their own little pot of grant money and their own little voice on Capitol Hill. That, apparently, is more important than building a national homeland security enterprise that can keep the nation safe from terrorists and natural disasters.

If Congress rips FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security, then we'll know that the lessons of 9/11 matter nothing compared to Washington's impulse to conduct business as usual.

We will be going back to the bad old days. That is change we shouldn't have to live with.

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and Winning World War II.

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

First appeared in the Washingtontimes