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DHS: A decade (and more) of competing congressional oversight

Jul. 18, 2014 - 03:50PM   |  
By CHUCK BROOKS   |   Comments
Charles (Chuck) Brooks serves as Vice President and Client Executive for DHS at Xerox. Previously, he served in government at the Department of Homeland Security as the first Director of Legislative Affairs for the Science & Technology Directorate. Follow him @ChuckDBrooks on Twitter and on Linkedin at
Charles (Chuck) Brooks serves as Vice President and Client Executive for DHS at Xerox. Previously, he served in government at the Department of Homeland Security as the first Director of Legislative Affairs for the Science & Technology Directorate. Follow him @ChuckDBrooks on Twitter and on Linkedin at (File)

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed back in 2003, 22 separate government agencies with more than 170,000 employees were combined into one. The vast scale of creating a new major government agency entailed defining the roles for these agencies and meshing their independent cultures, acquisition and procurement operations, HR, and IT systems.

Each agency had differing missions and priorities, so consolidating them created legislative and jurisdictional issues from the inception. The issues arose as a result of the urgency of forming the DHS and from the lack of experience that the then-current government leaders had in constructing such a large federal agency. The 9/11 Commission, co-chaired by the Hon. Thomas H. Kean and Hon. Lee Hamilton, provided the original guidance for the establishment of the DHS. One of their key 41 recommendations was to streameline congressional oversight. In 2004, the Center for Security and International Studies, and Business Executives for National Security (CSIS-BENS) Task Force on Congressional Oversight provided an excellent purview of the bureaucratic challenges in legislating homeland security. The report noted that 88 committees had some amount of jurisdiction over various aspects of homeland security prior to the creation of the DHS. In contrast it stated that the Department of Defense (DOD) was ten times the size of the DHS and reported to only 36 committees.

There was a meaningful chart that accompanied the CSIS-BENS Task Force study depicting the jurisdictional lines emanating from the congressional committees to the various DHS management components and sub-agencies. The lines were numerous and cumbersome and visually resembled a tangled spider web. I used that chart as a prop when I taught a “Homeland Security and Congress” course for two years at SAIS John Hopkins University. I also recollect that in the early days of the DHS my colleagues at the Office of Legislative Affairs (including me) had that “flow chart” taped to our walls as a working blueprint to track our outreach activities to the Hill. For the most part, the chart is still applicable. In fact, the oversight over the past decade has grown significantly and the DHS now reports to 119 different committees.

Excessive governmental oversight can have a diminishing effect on performance. Complying with the oversight can be duplicative, messy and confusing. It requires time, resources, and effort spent on hearings, reporting requirements and answering Congressional queries. The DHS leadership can be characterized like a ship crew reporting to too many captains with differing views on how and where to sail. There is lot of activity but progress can be fleeting. Note that Congress has yet to pass an authorization bill for homeland security since its formation because a lack of agreement among the various committees. Thankfully the appropriators have been more unified and focused when handling the rudder to keep the DHS’s mission, priorities and capabilities afloat.

Unlike some other federal agencies with less scope and responsibilities, the DHS mission of protecting the homeland does require consensus and specialized expertise. This includes operating in areas such as law enforcement, counter-terrorism, emergency management, cybersecurity, protecting critical infrastructure, and detecting and negating potential weapons of mass destruction. Because of the DHS’s critical roles, Congress needs to ensure that the agency’s mission is never undermined. Oversight is an important function of that congressional duty.

But oversight requires balance and reform. The DHS has to be held accountable on how they spend their money, and on the success of their policies and programs. The policy and academic communities have offered several bi-partisan pragmatic frameworks for oversight reforms. A 2010 Heritage Foundation Study called, “Stopping the Chaos: A Proposal for Reorganization of Congressional Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security,” summed up the dilemma. “DHS, as one department, must answer to more than 100 committees and subcommittees ranging from Agriculture to Finance to Energy to Commerce – all of which are ones that the average American would have a difficult time understanding as being responsible for homeland security.” The Heritage proposal suggested reorganizing the DHS oversight into six full committees, three in the Senate an three in the House.

In April of 2013, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and Aspen Institute convened The Sunnylands-Aspen Task Force that recommended new committee oversight to restructure Congress and the DHS. They recommended using the DOD model of fewer, more directed committees to streamline oversight processes. That would also reduce redundancy and be a cost-saving measure for the sub-agencies during a period of budget austerity where every dollar counts.

The DHS, like the DOD, is an agency with a national security mission. Emulating the DOD’s governing model does make sense. Enacting some of these oversight reforms suggested by the think-tank organizations, including the original 9/11 Commission, would be a prudent and responsible initiative for the next Congress to fulfill as we proceed into the DHS’s second decade of securing the homeland.

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