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September 30, 2004

Lack of Congressional Reform Leaves America Less Safe

By

Today, Rep. Chris Cox, Chairman of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, reports to the House leadership with recommendations on the future of the Committee. Cox's report should call for making the Committee permanent. In addition, the Committee should be given broad authority so that it can effectively oversee the Department of Homeland Security.

 

In February 2003, the House established a temporary Select Committee on Homeland Security. As the ranking Democratic member of the Committee, Rep. Jim Turner, noted, "The act of creating a new Department, by itself, does not make us more secure. It is just a first step." He was right; vigorous support from Congress is needed to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) got the right direction, authorities, and support from Congress. Unfortunately, from the onset the Homeland Security Committee had only limited authority to serve as an effective watchdog. Dozens of other committees retained their authorities to manage the Department's affairs.

 

To its credit, the Homeland Security Committee has demonstrated its worth, authoring several important bills, including a measure that would have improved funding for first responders and introduced important management reforms in DHS. But the Committee received little support for its efforts, and vital legislation that would have helped make the nation safer languished.

 

The final report of the 9/11 Commission reaffirmed the importance of fixing congressional oversight. The Commission held that "Congress should create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security. Congressional leaders are best able to judge what committee should have jurisdiction over this department [DHS] and its duties. But we believe the Congress have the obligation to choose one in the House and one in the Senate, and that this committee should be a permanent standing committee with a nonpartisan staff." As the report also noted, one expert witness appearing before the Commission testified, rightly so, that lack of effective Congressional oversight is perhaps the single greatest obstacle impeding successful development of DHS.

 

Cox's report should make the case that his is the right committee to assume this responsibility in the House, with both the staff and the focus to ensure that the disparate activities and agencies within DHS work together to make a coherent and unified contribution to homeland security. The Cox report should call for:

  • Establishing a permanent Homeland Security Committee with broad oversight of the Department, including sole responsibility for a DHS authorization bill;
  • Sharing jurisdiction with other committees that hold equal responsibility for key government activities, such as oversight of intelligence, immigration, and inter-modal transportation; and
  • Removing the chairs of other committees from the Homeland Security Committee to eliminate the potential for conflict of interest by those seeking to protect the existing authorities of their own committees.

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

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