Former homeland security officials: Congress needs to streamline DHS oversight

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The 9/11 Commission Report, written by the commission put together after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, recommended that Congress streamline its oversight of the Department of Homeland Security.

Nine years after the report was released in 2004, that provision has still not been implemented, and two prominent members of the commission are urging legislators to pick up the pace.

A report released Wednesday by the Aspen Institute, which drew on the knowledge of the two former co-chairs of the commission, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, as well as that of DHS officials and members of congress, suggested that it was time for Congress to make the process more efficient.

The daily workings of congress can often be inefficient and redundant — a habit that can usually be written off as one of its many charming quirks. But Kean and Hamilton say that when it comes to overseeing homeland security, that inefficiency is a major problem.

Right now, a multitude of committees have jurisdiction over DHS.

In the 112th Congress, DHS employees attended 289 congressional hearings in the Senate or the House at the behest of 28 committees. According to a New York Times op-ed by Kean and Hamilton, that amounts to 66 works years, and costs taxpayers $10 million.

“Think of having 100 bosses. Think of reporting to 100 people. It makes no sense. You could not do your job under those circumstances,” Kean says in the report.

It also means that Congress often is unable to set any clear policy with regard to matters of homeland security because the various committees cannot agree on a course of action. When they can agree on what to do, it takes significant amounts of time to move legislation through.

Ideally, the authors of the report would like DHS to report to fewer committees, and when it does have to report to multiple committees, to have overlapping membership of those committees so that there can be better coordination among committees.

But Congress, the report points out, “does not usually reform itself,” which makes implementation of this streamline more difficult. Congress cannot change the committee structure until the start of a new congress in January 2015. In the meantime, the report recommends “time-limiting subcommittee referrals to expedite matters of national security.”

Another obstacle to implementation is the egos involved. As former Republican Rep. David Dreier put it in the report: “One of the things I concluded 20 years ago was that members of Congress would just as soon give up their firstborn [as] give up jurisdiction over the executive branch in particular areas.”

As a result, the report concludes, “the most promising strategy for reform lies in convincing Congressional leadership that it is the right thing to do. Only a leadership convinced of the benefits to the country is likely to make such oversight reform happen.”

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