Today, the new and newly re-elected Members of the 113th Congress were sworn in, among them many members of the 108 total committees and subcommittees with oversight over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Yes, you read that right. As of the close of the last Congress, there were more than a hundred committees and subcommittees that have a hand in overseeing DHS. To put that into perspective, the Department of Defense, with a budget roughly 10 times greater than DHS and millions more employees, reports to only 36 committees and subcommittees.
More than eight years ago now, the 9/11 Commission recommended that “Congress should create a single principal point of oversight and review for homeland security.” Eight years later, Congress has yet to heed the warning, and U.S. security is paying the price.
As Heritage President Ed Feulner explained this past September, “It might be easy to shrug off this oversight problem. It’s the usual Washington bureaucracy, something that hardly affects the rest of us, right? Wrong. The slowdowns and turf battles that go hand-in-hand with excessive oversight actually hamper DHS’s efforts to better protect the nation.”
What this means practically is that important security bills have to pass through multiple committees and subcommittees. The Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2010, intended to revise and strengthen America’s approach to biological threats, had to pass through eight different committees in the House of Representatives alone.
Similarly, the web of congressional bureaucracy results in multiple and often conflicting messages and guidance from Congress to DHS. It also places a significant time burden on the department. Between 2009 and 2010, for example, DHS conducted more than 3,900 briefings and testified before Congress more than 285 times. The cost of such oversight is estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, with thousands of lost work hours that DHS could have spent executing its mission.
None of this is to say that vigorous congressional oversight over DHS is not necessary and proper, but burdensome and superfluous layers of oversight only harm U.S. security. Congress can do better.
As the 113th Congress begins, it’s time to do away with the duplicative and onerous web of oversight over DHS and implement the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations once and for all. Following the model of the oversight structure over the Defense Department, Congress should pare down oversight of DHS to six and only six committees—three in the Senate and three in the House. Under this structure, in each chamber, the Homeland Security Committee, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Appropriations Committee would have oversight over the Department, together with 20 subcommittees. This would bring oversight of DHS down to 26 total committees and subcommittees, a significant improvement over where it stands today.
Certainly, getting Members of Congress to give up pieces of the homeland security pie won’t be easy, but it’s time Congress put security before political posturing.