Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and former DHS Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff discuss the need for Congress to pass a budget to ‪fund DHS on Feb. 25, 2015‬. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler)

Former Secretaries Ask Congress to Reform DHS Oversight During Lame Duck

Six former secretaries and acting secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security told congressional leaders that the House and Senate should finally move to consolidate oversight of DHS before the new Congress comes into session Jan. 4.

The Atlantic Council’s Future of DHS Project, in which more than 100 national security experts reviewed the department this year to study its handicaps and craft suggestions on the best way to focus the mission, highlighted this core challenge that has plagued the department from the start: DHS reports to dozens of congressional committees and subcommittees, while other cogs in the nation’s security apparatus such as the Defense Department enjoy streamlined authorization and oversight.

Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano, Jeh Johnson, Rand Beers, and Kevin McAleenan released an open letter last week calling on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to remedy the problem in the lame-duck session — a window in which it is easier to change committee responsibilities before the 117th Congress convenes.

“Under House Rule X and S. Res. 445, more than 90 different committees or subcommittees today have jurisdiction over DHS—far more than any other cabinet department,” the DHS secretaries wrote. “… Needing to work legislation through sometimes competing and overlapping committees makes needed, fundamental reforms at DHS difficult or impossible to achieve.”

A reauthorization bill has not been passed for DHS since its inception. In 2018, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed a DHS authorization bill that took three years to construct — thanks to trying to reach consensus among the multiple committees with a hand in DHS oversight — with the House Committee on Homeland Security shepherding the bill through the lower chamber in 2017. Ultimately, the DHS Authorization Act was not passed by the Senate, though some provisions were rolled into the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act of 2018, the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 2018, and the Department of Homeland Security Data Framework Act of 2018.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told Federal News Network’s Federal Drive late last month that he would be lobbying for consolidated oversight with House leadership and President-elect Biden “as one of the real issues in the 9/11 Commission report yet to be addressed and completed is this jurisdictional issue.”

“We have professional men and women in the ranks who believe in the mission, but from a strictly jurisdictional administrative leadership standpoint, it’s a mess,” Thompson said. “And so we are asking that you treat DHS like you do all other cabinet positions by limiting the responsibilities from a jurisdictional standpoint, specifically to the Homeland Security Committee.”

In lieu of a comprehensive departmental reauthorization, DHS and its agencies have been funded in annual appropriations legislation and guided in bills related to programs and activities. DHS leaders are often stretched thin as committees with slivers of oversight try to schedule hearings — “a tremendous amount of duplicative work that really should not be,” Thompson said — but to reform and consolidate means making reticent chairmen give up precious pieces of jurisdiction.

Thompson told WFED that he had received “nothing but positive feedback from key people” on the Biden team about the need for DHS jurisdictional reform, and felt there is “no question” that progress can be made in the next term. “I’ve shared many of those concerns about jurisdiction and how we need to respond nimbly, to disasters and other things,” he said.

But Ridge, Chertoff, Napolitano, Johnson, Beers, and McAleenan argued to congressional leaders that consolidating committee jurisdiction around a single primary authorizing committee in each body now would “provide stronger direction to DHS” in the 117th Congress.

“DHS urgently needs to make major reforms, improvements, and enhancements to ensure the Department can protect the nation in the way Congress envisioned nearly two decades ago,” the former secretaries wrote to congressional leadership. “DHS’s leadership, whether Democratic or Republican, needs to work with a single authorizing committee with broad subject matter authority to enact the changes and authorize the programs that DHS needs to address the threats of 2021.”

The secretaries noted that if the Defense Department had to report to seven or more authorizing committees it “could not modernize fast enough to stay ahead of evolving military threats to our security.”

“There are few issues in Washington with a stronger claim to bipartisan support than keeping the American people and our democracy safe. Restructuring Congressional oversight of DHS is the most important un-implemented recommendation of the 9/11 Commission,” they wrote. “More than a dozen think tanks across the political spectrum from the Brookings Institution to the Heritage Foundation, and numerous bipartisan commissions on which we have served, have recommended consolidating DHS Congressional oversight.”

Given the stakes, baby steps would be acceptable too, they added: “Even a significant reduction in the number of committees with authority over DHS would be a step in the right direction.”

In 2013, a task force organized by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and the Aspen Institute, including 9/11 Commission co-chairs Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, urged Congress to streamline oversight of DHS and reauthorize the department.

Henry Willis, director of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) Strategy, Policy, and Operations Program at RAND Corp., wrote in 2014 that DHS’ position is “like a CEO attempting to manage a company while having to answer to dozens of boards of directors and fiduciary oversight panels.”

Jena Baker McNeill of the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2008 that the current system “imposes confusing and burdensome priorities and directives to the point that congressional oversight threatens the DHS mission,” noting that committees outside of the House and Senate Homeland Security panels aren’t as focused on homeland security issues and may not be choosing a course of action that’s best for DHS.

“Members of a committee with homeland security oversight can receive large political payoffs by returning to their districts and framing themselves as champions of homeland security,” she wrote. “As a result, they tend to turn DHS oversight into a three-ring circus where they grandstand at the expense of effective oversight.”

DHS Needs Urgent Refocus on Modern Threats, Partnerships and Morale, Say Former Officials

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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