While no one argues that congressional oversight of DHS isn’t necessary and hasn’t made the agency better over the last eight years, many current and former officials say having so many bosses is taking a toll on the agency’s people and resources.
“What we really have here is a tipping point situation,” said Pam Turner, a former assistant secretary of legislative affairs at DHS from 2003 to 2006 and now a directing manager at the Prime Policy Group. “What is the point at which all of the benefits and advantages of a good oversight process get to the point where it sort of tips into disadvantages and demands on the department that may be, perhaps, not unreasonable but certainly overbearing?”
Every DHS secretary, from Tom Ridge to Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano, has tried to make the case for Congress to reduce the number of oversight committees.
“The oversight situation is really harmful to the department,” Turner said. “The burdens that it creates takes time away from other officials others operational duties, whether it’s a matter of hearings or briefing or other meetings on the Hill that can take a lot of time not only from the officials but their staff and legislative affairs staff.”
She said it takes days, if not weeks, to prepare for a hearing and to answer all of a committee’s questions after the hearing, adding to the burden on the agency.
Tom Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said the reduction of oversight committees is the one recommendation that has floundered.
“We should immediately consolidate jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security in the House and Senate homeland security committees,” he said. “This would avoid what exists now with almost 100 committees and subcommittees that the DHS secretary reports to. That’s confusion. It’s not oversight. It makes it dysfunctional. It means DHS spends so much preparing and testifying that they are not protecting us, which is their job.”
Some lawmakers recognize the problem. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said the inability of Congress to decrease the number of oversight committees is one of Congress’ biggest failings since 9/11.
“It is time consuming and so many hours go into preparation for testimony, it’s a tremendous waste of time,” King said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “In addition to that, DHS gets mixed signals from Congress with so many committees with limited amounts of jurisdiction, each looking from their own narrow perspective. They all try to set the agenda to be different from an overall homeland security agenda because of different emphasis.”
DHS gets mixed signals from the different voices and that affects their ability to meet their mission, King added.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she has tried to consolidate jurisdiction a few times over the years.
“In 2004, Sen. Lieberman, Sen. McCain, and I fought to consolidate Senate oversight of DHS in one committee. What followed was death by amendment, as other committee leaders came to the floor and pulled out their pieces of the department,” Collins said in an email statement to Federal News Radio. “The oversight jurisdiction redundancy complicates matters for both the department and the Congress. How could we expect the 22 merging agencies to collaborate, when we can’t do so ourselves?”
Figuring out lawmakers’ demands
DHS has made this arrangement work over the years, but not without feeling the impact.
Each legislative-affairs assistant secretary or undersecretary for management — or any number of other senior officials — have figured out how to answer the lawmakers’ calls.
Elaine Duke, a former undersecretary for management at DHS and now president of Elaine Duke and Associates, said she tried to work with committees in advance of hearings or to avoid hearings altogether.
“That seemed to be more time effective and actually just more effective overall,” she explained. “I tried to get to know the members, the staff and try to address the issues in open conversations, which is sometimes a little more difficult in hearings. Most of the committees were really receptive to that. It was really helpful and it can be time intensive too, but it really worked toward solving some of the problems and developing mutual understanding. It was useful time spent.”
Duke said she was called to only about about eight hearings a year during her tenure, which was a huge decrease from the early years of the agency.
Over time this approach has let DHS become less reactive to problems, she added.
“DHS doesn’t just take action based on the last hearing. But set the agenda, carry out the agenda and manage the hearings and manage committees en route to delivering the mission,” Duke said. “I think that is the path DHS has taken. In the early days, it was a little bit more reactive in terms of reacting to the last hearing or reacting to the last press story. But it’s really evolved to setting a strategic agenda. In that case, I think they are managing the congressional committees and working with them, but staying the path in delivering the mission.”
And that approach seems to be paying off.
Rafael Borras, the current undersecretary for management at DHS, said the impact of having so much congressional oversight on his office has been minimal in the nine months since he’s been confirmed.
“There has been a continuum of growth and development in the department,” Borras said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “Clearly the issues Janet Hale had to address in starting up the organization (are) very different from where I find myself today.”
DHS becoming one
Borras said DHS still needs to mature and grow but, maybe just as important, employees realize the changes that need to happen.
“At this particular stage and time, DHS recognizes they have to have more of an enterprise function,” Borras said. “I’ve talked to the previous undersecretaries who had to fight battles with some of the components over jurisdiction. I don’t find myself having those battles necessarily anymore.”
Borras said the one challenge that will continue as long as there are so many oversight committees is the confusion over policy direction.
Janet Hale, the first undersecretary for management at DHS and now a director with Deloitte Consulting, said many times the conflicting policy direction left the agency in limbo.
“Different committees have different instructions to the department too,” Hale said. “Somebody has an opinion, you should go right. And somebody else has an opinion, you should go left. And the department sits and goes ‘I’ll make the best decision we’ll defend the policy and program decisions.’ But then Congress doesn’t resolve the issue themselves. It has been a long-standing seven-year challenge.”
The conflicting policy direction also takes away from the agency’s ability to meet its mission, said Ralph Basham, the former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
“We are operators. The Department of Homeland Security is an operational department,” Basham said. “That is what we need to be doing. The less time we spend on the Hill and on reports and that sort of thing, the better we will be able to do the job at hand.”
Any chance to reduce oversight?
Current and former DHS officials agreed that decreasing the number of oversight bodies must happen. The question for many is when?
“The great advertisement it seems for me for Congress, itself, is look you’ve forfeited all the movement in this direction to the administration by splitting up the authority,” said Slade Gorton, a member of the 9/11 Commission. “They should be motivated by the fact if it were consolidated in 2 or 3 or 4 committees, the authority, the influence of Congress of what goes on would be greatly enhanced.”
But that argument may not be enough to sway lawmakers.
The House Homeland Security Committee chairman, King, said politics could prevent any reorganization.
“If we will have a Homeland Security Committee, it should be given real jurisdiction,” King said. “All I can say, and again it’s easy for me because I’m not in a leadership position and don’t have to make this decision, at any given time there is legislation that is important to pass. The speaker, no matter which party you are in, may feel that by antagonizing a powerful chairman of a particular committee may impede legislation. There’s only so many battles that can be fought at any one time.”
So in the meantime, King said he and other lawmakers meet regularly with DHS officials, including Secretary Janet Napolitano, to try to reduce the impact of so many oversight bodies.