July 7, 2004 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Homeland Security Needs Responsible Congressional Oversight

To guard the nation during a protracted war against terrorism, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security by integrating the activities of more than 22 federal agencies and programs into a single cohesive effort. While the department has performed yeoman's service in striving for this goal, it is not clear that Congress is doing its part-providing appropriate oversight. From just the last legislative season, there is more than enough experience to suggest that it is long past time for Congress to establish permanent committees to oversee homeland security in the House and Senate.

 

Inconsistent Oversight

Another holiday passes without a major terrorist incident on U.S. soil. That's cold comfort. We know now it took seven years to plan and execute the September 11 attacks. What we don't know is what threats are now in the works and when they may come to fruition. We need homeland security that will serve for the long term, protecting Americans on holidays and unremarkable days for years to come.

 

There is no question that Congress has a major role to play in establishing an effective homeland security regime. While the Homeland Security Act of 2002 created a lead federal agency for many domestic security activities, that was only the first step. Building an effective department requires sound strategies, solid programs, personnel reforms, and integrating information technologies. Congressional oversight-lead by committees and professional staffs with the experience and expertise to address difficult, complex issues-plays an important role in achieving these ends. To this point, the Congress has failed to provide that kind of leadership.

 

Supervision of the Department's operations is fragmented and incoherent. In the Senate, the Government Affairs Committee provides nominal oversight, while the House has established a temporary select committee. Nevertheless, jurisdiction over Department activities remains split among dozens of committees and subcommittees in both houses. The result has been oversight overload. From January to June 2004, Department representatives testified before a staggering 126 hearings. That's an average of one-and-a-half testimonies for every day of the legislative session. In addition, a typical day for the Department includes at least a dozen meetings or briefings to legislators and staff.

 

The amount of time spent preparing, participating, and responding to queries from the Hill is not the only issue. Beyond having to testify before multiple committees, Department representatives must accept oversight from these committees. After all, many of the department's initiatives cut across the roles and missions of the federal government and strong congressional input and feedback is necessary. But multiple committees, with multiple interests and multiple and sometimes conflicting priorities exacerbate the challenge of building a comprehensive, focused national security regime.

 

The fate of the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act (H.R. 3266) offers a case in point. The bill was introduced in the House Select Homeland Security Committee to bring strategic focus and discipline to the process of providing grants to state and local governments, but the Committee soon found itself in competition with the House Judiciary Committee and Transportation Committee, both of which felt compelled to offer their own bills, leaving the House Rules Committee to decide which version and which amendments will be considered by the full House. What may well get lost in the competition to protect committee turf is the need to craft legislation that will make the federal grant program a true national security instrument rather than a cash cow for state and local governments.

 

Congress needs to move from scatter-shot supervision of homeland security to responsible oversight, establishing permanent committees in both chambers with full jurisdiction over the Department, as well as a role in the oversight of all critical national homeland security programs.

 

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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