Congress has often criticized the Department of Homeland Security for its short comings, however in many ways Congress itself is to blame. When DHS was created 22 agencies and almost 200,000 people were pulled together into one entity. However, despite the 9/11 Commissions recommendation that congressional oversight should be consolidated, there still remains some 86 congressional committees and subcommittees with oversight over DHS.
“The risk of too much oversight” is extensive, as deputy assistant secretary for policy development at the Department of Homeland Security Stephen R. Heifetz explained in a recent New York Times Op-ed. The resources of DHS are limited and thus, the Department needs to face the varying homeland security concerns based on assessment of their relative risk and consequences. However, with 86 committees having their hand in homeland security policy, DHS cannot prioritize issues. Heifetz explains, “individual committees focus on the risks in their domain at the expense of comparable—and perhaps greater—risks outside.”
DHS cannot operate efficiently under such a system of oversight. According to Heifetz, DHS officials testified at 231 Congressional hearings and gave over 2,600 briefings to legislators and their staffs in 2007 alone. A lot of this time could have been better spent developing and implementing policy measures.
In a Heritage Backgrounder, Homeland Security Policy Analyst Jena Baker McNeill further explained how DHS needs a partner in Congress, rather than an adversary. In the current system of oversight, congress is acting reactively to DHS, rather than proactively. However, with more focused oversight congress could help guide DHS in policy development rather than wait to go after them when they fail. This is all the more important as DHS is approaching its first presidential transition. Consolidation of congressional oversight would be a key step in helping DHS to face what lies ahead.