On November 12, senior House Republican leaders sent a letter to
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to amend Rule X, the rule
governing how committees are organized.
This letter is a positive step toward changing the chaotic
system of congressional oversight of homeland security. The fact
that the letter came from Members of Congress and not the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) itself demonstrates that the
current system has become such a bureaucratic nightmare that
congressmen themselves are compelled to take aggressive
action--even if it is against their own self-interest. Speaker
Pelosi should recognize the significance of this letter and take
The 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress consolidate
jurisdiction of homeland security into a "single, principal point
of oversight and review." Since this time, although the House and
Senate did create two standing committees with jurisdiction over
homeland security, the web of oversight has remained extremely
Currently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports to
108 committees, subcommittees, and commissions. While many in and
out of Congress complain that the current system is too confusing,
Members of Congress seem reluctant to give up jurisdiction. Members
like having a slice of the homeland security oversight pie, because
being tough on homeland security translates into tremendous
political rewards. But the current system is confusing, highly
burdensome, and impedes policy progress through often conflicting
demands on DHS.
An Inside Job
Congressional oversight is not often covered in the news, nor is
DHS oversight an issue that most Americans are knowledgeable or
concerned about. For this reason, real change is going to have to
come from Members who recognize that this chaos has a tremendously
negative effect on the ability of DHS to protect the homeland--to
the detriment of all Americans. Congress should:
- Consolidate Oversight of Homeland Security. Congress
should consolidate oversight and limit jurisdiction over homeland
security to four committees: the House and Senate appropriations
committees and the House and Senate authorization committees.
Furthermore, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Committee should be divided, with a committee exclusively dedicated
to homeland security.
- Pass an Authorization Bill. Congress should quickly
enact a DHS authorization bill that includes a structure for key
personnel programs, critical missions, major research programs, and
investments in information technology--for both the efficacy of DHS
and increased legislative stability for the agency so that it
understands more of what Congress expects prior to policy
- Reshape the Nature of Oversight. Through its oversight
power, Congress has a major role to play in DHS's success. Congress
should be a partner, not an adversary, in this function. It should
focus on defining where homeland security should go and how we
should get there. Congress's aim should be to find the right policy
mix that achieves resiliency--the capacity to maintain continuity
of activity even in the face of adversity, threats, and
disaster--while recognizing that we cannot deter all threats. The
latter, as evidenced by the 100 percent scanning mandate, is
severely lacking in current oversight.
Need for Leadership
Streamlining congressional oversight will not be an easy task.
Nor is it a feel-good measure that will earn points with voters.
But real leadership requires making decisions that are smart, even
if they do not grab headlines. It is time for Congress to show that
kind of leadership.
Jena Baker McNeill is
Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.