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June 7, 2004

9/11 Commission's Executive Focus Ignores Half the Picture

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For over a year now, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Against the United States (less formally, the "9/11 Commission") has been investigating the actions of the executive branch-including the current and former presidential administrations-to identify shortcomings in federal policy that may have contributed to the nation's inability to detect and prevent the 9/11 attacks. With this approach, however, the Commission misses at least half of the picture. In addition to the White House, Congress has significant responsibility for policymaking through both its legislative and oversight roles. However, to date, the Commission has failed to investigate whether Congress was properly organized to face the modern terrorist threat. No study by the Commission can be considered adequate or complete unless it addresses the activities of the Hill.

Since al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the organization of the many federal agencies with counter-terrorism responsibilities has been a central focus of Bush Administration policy, Congressional legislation, and public debate. As a direct result 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration was established in 2001, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created in 2002, and, last year, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and the Terrorist Screening Center were established by President Bush. Also last year, DHS was restructured.

Comparatively little has been done to ensure that the legislative branch of the federal government is structured to debate homeland security legislation and to oversee federal security policy effectively. In both chambers of Congress, oversight authority for homeland security issues continues to be divided between many committees and subcommittees, potentially slowing vital legislation and creating inconsistencies in directions to DHS.

Both chambers have recognized this problem and undertaken several initial reforms. The House of Representatives and the Senate have established appropriations subcommittees for homeland security in the 108th Congress. This reform has already allowed Congress to pass a single homeland security appropriations bill for FY2004, instead of spreading DHS's budget across numerous pieces of legislation. In this, Congress has made it much easier to hold the department accountable for its expenditures and has ensured that DHS's entire fiscal picture can be debated all at once.

In addition, as part of its rules package for the 108th Congress (H.Res. 5), the House established a Select Committee for Homeland Security, following on the example of the ad hoc select committee that drafted the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The jurisdiction of this committee encompasses "such matters that relate to the Homeland Security Act of 2002," as well as all "laws, programs, and government activities relating to homeland security."

Still, the rules package did not remove responsibility for certain aspects of homeland security from the jurisdictions other committees, and  the Select Committee it created does not have the same status as a standing committee. For example, the House Judiciary Committee has retained expressed jurisdiction over immigration policy, the Resources Committee has retained responsibility for managing the U.S. coastal zone, and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has retained authority over the United States Coast Guard (now part of the DHS)federal emergency management, and all transportation regulatory agencies-including the TSA (also a part of DHS).

The impact of this Congressional chaos can be seen in the number of bills referred to these vestigial committees. Since DHS was created, the Select Committee has received 22 bills for review. By comparison, the House Judiciary Committee has received 59, many dealing with immigration, despite that immigration is no longer a part of the Department of Justice's jurisdiction in the executive branch.

The Select Committee for Homeland Security will deliver a report by September 30, 2004, on the adequacy of the House's rules in promoting effective oversight of homeland security, including Section X, which assigns committee jurisdictions and authorities. By the time this report is released and reviewed, however, members' committee assignments for 2005 are likely to have been solidified, increasing resistance to jurisdiction reform.

Change is even less likely in the Senate. So far, no reform of the Senate's authorizing committees has occurred or even been given serious consideration.

The 9/11 Commission was created "to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks" and to offer recommendations to improve security against future attacks. To date, it has held hearings on"Terrorism, Al Qaeda, and the Muslim World," "Intelligence and the War on Terrorism," "Emergency Preparedness," "Security and Liberty," "Borders, Transportation, and Managing Risk," "Counter-terrorism Policy," "Law Enforcement and the Intelligence Community," and other politically charged topics. But the role of Congress in promoting homeland security and the question of whether Congress is appropriately organized to face the threat of terror have been left unaddressed by the Commission, and few current and past members of Congress have been called to testify before it.

If the Commission is to fulfill its task, it must conduct a public hearing to evaluate how well equipped Congress was to prevent the attacks, whether Congressional disorganization contributed to shortcomings in homeland security, and what can be done to improve Congress's ability to combat terrorism. Indeed, such an effort would be more worthwhile than the partisan politics of blame that have hijacked the Commission's recent proceedings.

Michael Scardaville is a Policy Analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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