March 25, 2004 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Housekeeping and Homeland Security

A year after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the House leadership ponders whether it needs a permanent committee to oversee the department. The answer is yes.

When the President proposed the Homeland Security Act to Congress, it was referred to 12 standing committees in the House thought to have jurisdiction over the legislation. That was the right thing to do. Domestic security missions touch every federal agency and cut across national programs. Even today, a year after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, virtually every federal department has responsibilities for protecting the nation.

Safeguarding the lives and property of Americans remains a mission that cuts across the federal executive and correspondingly the committees of Congress. Officials in the Department of Homeland Security will always find themselves-and rightly so-scurrying from committee room to committee room, testifying on their efforts to integrate a plethora of activities into a coherent, integrated national structure of systems and programs.

While security remains a cooperative government effort, we needed a dedicated Homeland Security Department. The rationale for the initiative paralleled the thinking behind the formulation of the 1947 National Security Act, consolidating key assets into one big, powerful organization and creating the means to orchestrate that department's efforts with other federal activities. Large, centralized organizations have drawbacks, the most obvious being the problems encountered in managing a vast bureaucracy. But big organizations can also have great strengths, providing unity of purpose, a wealth of capabilities, and economies of scale, and fostering a common institutional culture and practices that build trust and confidence and facilitate coordinated action.

The department now also faces the same challenges that confronted the Pentagon in 1947. In terms of efficiencies and improved coordination, the low-hanging fruit of corralling over 180,000 employees into one agency has been picked. What is left to be done is the hard work, the nuts and bolts of building a real department-implementing human capital, acquisition, and information technology programs; building security systems that match the national strategy; and standing watch every day against terrorist attacks. Oversight of these activities requires standing committees with the expertise and experience to see the big picture and dig into the details.

The House Select Committee on Homeland Security has already demonstrated that there could be value added in consolidating oversight in a single committee. They've held productive hearings and rapidly assembled a capable staff with the energy, expertise, and dedication that make for good congressional oversight. Last week, the full committee passed out H.R. 3266, Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders, a necessary piece of legislation and a great example of the kind of leadership needed from a permanent oversight committee.

The global war against terrorism will be a long, protracted conflict. We need a Department of Homeland Security that is built and run to protect Americans today, tomorrow, and ten and twenty years from now. We need a Congress that is properly organized to support this effort. Leaving jurisdiction for the department's homeland security programs fragmented among a dozen committees runs counter to the intent behind the Homeland Security Act of 2002: either merge functions, change cultures, and focus the federal government on homeland security or turn the initiative over to the terrorists.

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