The 115th Congress opened with an unforced error last week when House Republicans voted to place the independent Office of Congressional Ethics under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee. It was bad optics for a “drain-the-swamp” era, and the move was swiftly reversed.
But streamlining congressional oversight is a good idea; the House just picked the wrong target. It should have focused its attention on the Department of Homeland Security.
With a budget of around $65 billion, DHS reports to over 100 committees, subcommittees and caucuses in Congress. How does this compare with other departments? Well, the Department of Defense, with a budget nearly 10 times larger than that of DHS, reports to “only” 36 committees and subcommittees. Among those panels, almost all of the oversight occurs in the Senate and House Armed Services committees and corresponding appropriations committees.
Why in the world does DHS, with a far smaller budget, have to respond to three times as many committees as the Defense Department? Well, you can blame it on politics.
DHS was created by cobbling together pieces of 22 existing agencies, and the committees that had jurisdiction over those 22 pieces didn’t want to give up any of their turf. After all, having jurisdiction means having power: You can affect legislation, hold public hearings to praise or scold the administration, ask DHS all sorts of questions and demand a response, etc.
The problem is that, when virtually everyone in Congress has this authority over one agency, it wears down the agency. DHS staff spend so much time responding to congressional questions and testifying before committees that they are left with less time to do their “real” jobs: protecting the homeland. And when so many different committees and members provide oversight and guidance, much of it is inevitably repetitive or contradictory — wasting time and effort and sowing confusion rather than clarity.
There’s a saying that when everyone is responsible for something, then no one really is. While strong oversight is important, a Congress of more than 100 bosses ultimately makes for a less-helpful overseer and makes DHS a less-effective organization. We should be prioritizing security over power politics.
Thankfully, there is widespread, bipartisan support for reforming the congressional oversight of DHS. The 9/11 commission recommended it; every secretary of homeland security (both Democratic and Republican) has pushed for it; dozens of homeland security experts, academics and think-tankers have penned supportive op-eds and run full-page advertisements in major national newspapers. Best of all, the chairmen of the homeland security committees have tried and are trying to make it happen.
At this point, about the only people who don’t want to streamline congressional oversight of DHS are the current members of Congress who would have to give up a slice of their power. It is well past time for this to change. President-elect Donald Trump ran a campaign that promised to drain the swamp. The morass that is congressional oversight of DHS desperately needs draining.
Oversight of DHS should restructured in a way similar to that of the Department of Defense. The House and Senate homeland security committees should have primary jurisdiction over all things DHS. The intelligence committees should provide additional oversight where needed. And the appropriations committees would continue their role in ensuring that DHS gets the funding it needs and spends it wisely.
This structure would ensure that DHS got adequate, consistent guidance and oversight while saving the department time and money that can be far better spent focusing on keeping the homeland safe rather than responding to endless queries from Congress.
Lawmakers may have started off on the wrong foot by fiddling with the House ethics infrastructure, but streamlining DHS oversight would be a step in the right direction.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times