The Role of Congressional Oversight in Department Reform

Mr. Warrick then transitioned to a larger discussion featuring a panel of distinguished former officials. All panelists expressed that consolidating Congressional oversight of DHS was long overdue. Sharing his experience on the 9/11 Commission, Atlantic Council Board Director Tom Eldridge remembered that even in 2002 the fragmented oversight of DHS, then divided over eighty-eight committees and subcommittees, was the largest obstacle to DHS development. Similarly, former DHS Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Francis Taylor, also present when DHS was established, understood that Congress purposefully kept the twenty-two component jurisdictions in their original committees to weaken the power of the secretary of homeland security.

The issue of oversight remains pressing almost twenty years later, as advocates continue to push for streamlining the authorization of DHS. CNAS Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow and General Counsel Carrie Cordero used the Department of Defense to illustrate the incongruity in departmental jurisdiction. The Department of Defense works with a larger budget and oversees more personnel than DHS, yet it passes a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) annually, which is a vehicle for important cybersecurity legislation related to homeland security. Still, DHS remains without effective congressional authorization. Former General Counsel for the House Committee on Homeland Security Joan O’Hara agreed with Ms. Cordero, viewing an authorization bill as a necessary step for DHS to “operate as a complete department and not a collection of components.” According to Ms. O’Hara, members of Congress resoundingly agree that consolidation is necessary, though many representatives remain reticent to give up any power to shape policy. Nevertheless, staffs can collaborate to ensure that diverse interests are represented at DHS, as members do with the Department of Defense, which houses issues with broad constituent interest.

Throughout the conversation, the panelists represented a variety of ideas on ways in which distinctive components of DHS could improve. Security and International Policy Managing Director at the Center for American Progress Katrina Mulligan noted that, despite the diversity of perspectives regarding what DHS should prioritize, all panelists agreed that streamlining congressional oversight of the department was essential in meeting challenges to national security in the twenty-first century. Mr. Warrick concurred, stating that “now is the time when Congress should give itself … unity of view and purpose in consolidating congressional oversight jurisdiction of DHS.”

 You can re-watch “The Future of DHS Project: Time to reform Congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security” here or below. To learn the latest on the Future of DHS, visit the project website here. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

Julia Siegel is an intern for Forward Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. This article is published here courtesy of the Atlantic Council.