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Oversight Problem Overlooked?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
On Sept. 10, 2001, I flew back to Washington from Frankfurt, Germany, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. We discussed a host of domestic and foreign policy issues before landing at Dulles International Airport that bright, crisp fall day. Neither of us had any idea how our worlds, and the worlds of every American -- indeed, of everyone “on the planet,” as Newt often says -- would be completely upended within the next 24 hours.

Even the expectations that we all assumed within hours of the attack on that dark day have changed. At the time, the question was not if another attack on our country would occur, but when. Few would have predicted that we’d be looking back 11 years later to find that 9/11 was a one-time catastrophic event. It took a lot of sacrifice and hard work, but we’ve gotten much closer to “normal” life than many thought possible.

That’s in large measure because of the steps we’ve taken together as a nation to ensure our safety. We’ve become more alert and coordinated in facing the daily and ongoing threat of terrorism. We know that security requires constant vigilance -- not only from our armed forces, which have done an exemplary job hunting down terrorists worldwide, but from the combined efforts of federal, state and local governments striving to keep us all safe.

The 2004 9/11 Commission made 41 important recommendations on ways to improve U.S. homeland security. Nearly all were implemented. But one major one goes unheeded to this day: “Congressional oversight for intelligence -- and counterterrorism -- is now dysfunctional… Congress should create a single principal point of oversight and review for homeland security.”

Eight years later, nothing has changed. Actually, that’s not true. When it comes to oversight, the problem’s gotten worse.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports to 108 committees and subcommittees. That’s up from 86 in 2003. The Department of Defense, by contrast, reports to only 36 committees and subcommittees, yet its budget is 10 times higher. Worse, many of these 108 committees, such as Small Businesses, Financial Services, and Aging, hardly seem to a sensible role to play where homeland security is concerned.

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.

Take the recently proposed legislation to revise America’s approach to biological threats. It had to go through eight different committees in the House of Representatives alone. Such needless delay can be costly, and not just in terms of money.

Nor is this is a new problem. Consider what happened in 2006 when three Senate committees -- Commerce, Finance, and Homeland Security -- tried to handle a port security bill. “We had almost identical bills for port security coming out of each committee,” one former chief counsel told the Center for Public Integrity. “For 30 straight days, we were locked up in a room from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. arguing about jurisdiction.”

It can also be about bragging rights. “Any committee that has any part of jurisdiction is going to try to assert it, in order to get a shot on the news back home,” says Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., of the House Homeland Security committee. “Congress is like kids in school; you have to have rules.”

A complete overhaul is necessary. One obvious solution is to follow the way that Congress reformed oversight of the Department of Defense, which has a similar mission, and (as noted above) a much larger budget. Oversight could be pared down to exactly six committees, three in the Senate and three in the House.

Surely the Department of Homeland Security has enough of a challenge preventing the next terrorist attack. Why force it to waste time and money surviving a gauntlet of pointless and redundant oversight? As we mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let’s finally take the steps necessary to fix this problem.

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