Reforming Congressional Oversight of DHS Still Priority One, 9/11 Commission Members Say

Congressional oversight of homeland security received a particularly harsh rebuke by a new report by members of the now decade-old 9/11 Commission who were reconvened by the Bipartisan Policy Center and Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania to update their original recommendations ten years ago.

The panel was unequivocal in stating that “Congressional reform is the most important unfulfilled recommendation of the 9/11 Commission” in their new report, “Today’s Rising Terrorist Threat and the Danger to the United States: Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of The 9/11 Commission Report.”

The panel chastised the “fragmented congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security [DHS].”

“First and foremost is reform of Congress’s committee structure for overseeing homeland security,” the panel said this week, noting that it “predicted that of ‘all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult.’ Unfortunately, we were right. While the executive branch has undergone historic change and institutional reform, Congress has proved deeply resistant to needed change. It has made some minor adjustments, but not the necessary structural changes in oversight and appropriations for homeland security and intelligence.”

Continuing, the former 9/11 Commission members warned in their 10th anniversary report released Tuesday that, “Effective congressional oversight is especially important in areas, like homeland security, where much government activity necessarily occurs out of public view. Unlike other areas of policy, where the press and public can themselves monitor what their government is doing, the public must rely on Congress to be its eyes and ears with respect to sensitive and classified national security programs. Put simply: If Congress is not effectively overseeing these programs, no one is. Congress’s failure to reform itself makes the country less safe.”

Recently, more than 60 leaders in national defense urged Congress – again — to reform the way it oversees homeland security. They said the current system jeopardizes national security and leaves the nation vulnerable to cyber attacks, bioterrorism and other threats.

But getting the 114th Congress in January – or any Congress, for that matter — to muster the will to whittle down the plethora of needless committees that currently oversee DHS is easier said than done. Congress hasn’t seen fit to reform its oversight of DHS for 10 years, largely because of committee turf battles, the powers of the committee’s chairmen and their control of so many of the department’s purse strings. Everyone, it seems, believe they deserve a piece of the pie. It’s absurd governance on a grand scale.

For a reorganization to succeed, the current Congress would have to begin working on reform immediately, but given the current congressional climate, movement on this front seems like a pipe dream, despite the fact that the need for simpler oversight was one of the priority recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. Though most of the commission’s recommendations were eventually adopted — at least in part — the need for clearer oversight of DHS – which answers to nearly 100 committees and subcommittees — has yet to get past mere talk on Capitol Hill.

The result: fragmented congressional oversight of DHS that “leaves our nation more vulnerable than it might otherwise be to the threat of cyber, biological and chemical attack,” said the Sunnylands-Aspen Task Force, a group of homeland security experts convened by the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands and the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program in partnership with the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The original 9/11 Commission’s top recommendation was adamant: “Congress should create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security,” a point underscored by the Sunnylands-Aspen Task Force. The group emphasized that the 119 congressional committees, subcommittees and other groups that claim jurisdiction over DHS has resulted in a "tangle of overlapping committees" that breeds  political confusion.

The bipartisan group reflected the overwhelming consensus that the system is dysfunctional. "The nation is not as safe as it could and should be," it stated. It’s a long repeated warning that’s’ fallen on deaf ears in Congress. The 61 signatories include the three past secretaries of homeland security; all the members of the 9/11 Commission; former heads of the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency; Joint Chiefs of Staff; former members of Congress and former homeland security advisors to presidents.

The Department of Defense, with a budget 10 times the size of DHS, only has to report to one-third the number of committees and subcommittees DHS has to contend with. In recent years, DHS officials and staff have been summoned to testify at dozens of congressional hearings hundreds of times, expending hundreds of work-years at a cost tens of millions to prepare testimony and reports. The more time DHS officials spend on the Hill means less time they have to securing the homeland.

The Heritage Foundation’s Riley Walters noted that, “Excessive oversight only hinders DHS’s abilities, but meaningful reform would allow DHS officials the freedom of making our daily lives more secure. And it would allow members of Congress to stop fighting useless turf wars.”

The conclave of original 9/11 Commission members declared this week that they’d urged in 2004 that, “Through not more than one authorizing committee and one appropriating subcommittee in each house, Congress should be able to ask the Secretary of Homeland Security whether he or she has the resources to provide reasonable security against major terrorist acts within the United States and to hold the Secretary accountable for the department’s performance.”

But, “Regrettably, the Department of Homeland Security is still being simultaneously overseen by an unwieldy hodgepodge of committees,” they concluded. “In 2004, we remarked with astonishment and alarm that DHS reported to 88 committees and subcommittees of Congress. Incredibly, Congress over the past ten years has increased this plethora of oversight bodies to 92.

Again and again, past and present DHS senior managers have told us that this fragmented congressional oversight is counterproductive to national security goals. DHS is still a young department, continually learning and striving to improve. Optimally, Congress should help guide senior officials in managing the department as a cohesive whole, rather than as a collection of disparate parts.”

The former committee members said in their 10th anniversary report that, “The proliferation of oversight committees, however, has the opposite effect. More than 90 different committees and subcommittees cannot develop expertise about the department as a whole. Nor can committees that only oversee certain DHS components understand the department’s overall mission or assess competing priorities.”

“Emblematic of this inability is the fact that Congress has not, since the department’s creation, enacted a final comprehensive DHS authorization bill setting policy and spending priorities,” the former committee members said in their report this week.

“Reporting to this vast array of committees also places an extraordinary administrative burden on DHS, which must prepare reams of written testimony and respond to countless questions for the record,” their new report stated, noting that, “This burden distracts from other, higher-priority tasks. While Congress often complains about government ‘waste, fraud, and abuse,’ it seems to be complicit in squandering DHS resources here.

9/11 Commission co-chairs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton stated in an op-ed last fall that, “This patchwork system of supervision results in near-paralysis and a lack of real accountability.”

Indeed. Authorities – including every DHS secretary — have known for years that this muddle-headed approach has resulted in key security issues failing to be properly overseen by Congress.

House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R–Texas) recently told The Hill he has no plans to disrobe congressional DHS oversight duties from fellow Representatives. The “goal is to work with other relevant committee chairs and try to work out the jurisdictional battles and not engage in a bunch of turf wars,” he said.

Yet, “Every former Secretary of Homeland Security as well as current high-level DHS officials report — as they have for a decade — that this fragmented oversight is a significant impediment to the department’s successful development,” the former commission members said in their report this week.

The former 9/11 commissioners added that, “This Balkanized system of oversight detracts from the department’s mission and has made Americans less safe. It is long past time for Congress to oversee the department as a cohesive organization rather than a collection of disparate parts. Only a committee with responsibility for all DHS components will be able to provide the department with useful strategic guidance. Reducing jurisdictional overlap will also enable Congress to finally begin enacting regular authorizing legislation to guide DHS.”

The former commission members said, “We reiterate what we said in The 9/11 Commission Report: Congress should oversee and legislate for DHS through one primary authorizing committee. The Department of Homeland Security should receive the same streamlined oversight as the Department of Defense. At the very minimum, the next Congress should sharply reduce the number of committees and subcommittees with some jurisdiction over the department,” adding, “These changes should take effect when the next Congress convenes and the House and Senate adopt new rules in January. Planning should begin now to make this possible.”

In their new report, the commission reiterated its call for Congress to oversee and legislate the Department of Homeland Security through one primary authorizing committee and recommends that these changes take place when the next Congress convenes in January 2015.”

With so many committees and subcommittees now exercising some jurisdiction over DHS, fragmented oversight has become a significant impediment to the department’s success, they warned.

“Put simply: If Congress is not effectively overseeing these programs, no one is. Congress’s failure to reform itself makes the country less safe,” the new report stated.

As Kean and Hamilton early warned, unless Congress does its job, “the American people will not get the security they want and need.”

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