October 14, 2004 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Homework: Congress Needs To Return with a Better Plan to Reform Homeland Security Oversight

Congress's failure to consolidate oversight of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the single greatest obstacle to creating an efficient and effective Department. Whether this goal will be achieved in either chamber of Congress is in serious question. Congress must act and reform the rules for the 109th Congress to establish permanent oversight committees in both chambers.


When calls came to create a DHS, respected congressional and security policy experts of virtually every political persuasion (including the Heritage Foundation; see Backgrounder No. 1612, "The New Congress Must Reform Its Committee Structure to Meet Homeland Security Needs") agreed that an essential step would be to reform Congress's committee system and establish dedicated oversight of the Department, akin to the authority the House and Senate Armed Services committees hold over the Department of Defense. But committee chairs have been unwilling to relinquish much of their jurisdiction over the 22 agencies and activities transferred to DHS and so have blocked reform.


Congress's inability to address its homeland security responsibilities was conspicuously noted in the 9/11 Commission's final report. Among the Commission's priorities for enhancing the nation's capacity to protect itself against terrorist threats was a pointed recommendation that both the House and Senate must establish single committees with complete oversight responsibility over all matters pertaining to DHS.


The Senate's response to the 9/11 Commission's recommendation (S. Res. 445)falls well short of this mark. A committee appointed to examine the issue recommended renaming the Government Affairs Committee as the "Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee" and assigning it jurisdiction over all DHS operations except for the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This makes little sense. The range of the Committee's responsibilities is simply too broad to permit it to effectively oversee one of the nation's most critical national security priorities. Additionally, leaving out TSA and the Coast Guard means that two of the Department's most important agencies, along with a significant portion of the Department's resources and budget, will be outside the Committee's purview. This solution is a product of political compromise. It is not a good faith effort to provide badly needed reform of the congressional committee system or address the issues raised by the 9/11 Commission.


In contrast, the House Select Homeland Security Committee has issued a thoughtful report to House leadership that recommends establishing a permanent oversight committee with clear authority over all of DHS's homeland security operations. (See WebMemo No. 579, "Lack of Congressional Reform Leaves America Less Safe") The House's omnibus 9/11 Commission reform bill (HR.10) calls for the Committee on Rules to "act on the recommendations provided by the Select Committee on Homeland security and other Committees of existing jurisdiction" (Sec. 5027).


The House should adopt the recommendation of the Select Committee. And the Senate should adopt a parallel structure in its committee organization. Anything less would leave America less safe than it could be.

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.

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