Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced this week a major reform in oversight of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by the House of Representatives. For the first time, the House Committee on Homeland Security (CHS) will have a role in authorizing legislation over DHS’s components, which carry out most of DHS’s missions to keep the American people safe. Speaker Pelosi’s announcement aligns with the recommendation of the Atlantic Council’s Future of DHS Project in December to consolidate the authority of the core homeland security committees as part of a larger effort to refocus and reform DHS.
As a December 2020 Atlantic Council report details, jurisdiction over DHS has been divided among eleven major committees in the House and nine in the Senate. Consolidating congressional oversight over DHS is the last major un-implemented recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. On November 4, 2020, six former Secretaries and Acting Secretaries of DHS who advise the Atlantic Council’s Future of DHS Project called for consolidation of oversight of DHS. This was joined by a bipartisan letter from the current and two former chairs of CHS on November 12.
The Memorandum of Understanding released by Speaker Pelosi is the most significant reform to DHS oversight since shortly after DHS was founded in 2003.
In addition to the 9/11 Commission report’s recommendations, more than a dozen study groups, think tanks, and leading experts across the political spectrum have called for reform of congressional oversight of DHS over the past seventeen years. There is bipartisan agreement that the current, diffuse oversight of DHS has slowed efforts to keep the United States secure by making reform harder to negotiate for both Congress and the executive branch, as well as imposing a burden on DHS’s senior leadership unmatched by any other national security department.
Scowcroft Center Director and Atlantic Council Senior Vice President Barry Pavel stated that “the events of January 6th reinforce the critical importance of properly overseeing the departments that keep the American people safe at home. I am proud of what the Future of DHS Project has accomplished, and I look forward to its ambitious plans to tackle domestic violent extremism, foreign influence operations, and other threats in the year to come.”
In welcoming Speaker Pelosi’s announcement, Atlantic Council Future of DHS Project Director Thomas Warrick, a former DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary, said, “This announcement will strengthen the Secretary of Homeland Security’s ability to work with the Congress to get the legislative changes needed by DHS to address today’s threats. The United States faces an array of new threats, including COVID-19, climate change and extreme weather, and adversaries at home and abroad. While more needs to be done to strengthen congressional oversight of DHS and to allow DHS to work more effectively with the Congress, this week’s announcement by Speaker Pelosi is an important first step.”
On December 17, CHS Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) spoke at the Atlantic Council, noting that when Congress established DHS, “we put twenty two agencies together, but they are spread out throughout Congress, and that’s a real challenge.” Chairman Thompson reinforced the importance of reforming congressional oversight of DHS, an idea also set out in a November open letter by the Senior Advisory Board of the Future of DHS Project—which includes former Secretaries Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano, and Jeh Johnson, and former Acting Secretaries Rand Beers, and Kevin McAleenan.