The new members of Congress that are swarming the Hill this week don’t just mean new representation for their districts and states. They also signal a new oversight structure for every Federal agency. For one of the most overseen agencies – the Homeland Security Department – the changes are subtle instead of striking, but that may still make the jobs of DHS staffers tougher.
Julie Myers Wood is President of I & C Solutions, and former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She was my guest today, and her view of Congress’s new look as it relates to her former agency is that “the major players on immigration have not really changed. There weren’t a lot of major players that were voted out. Some have more power now,” she said.
The current team at DHS is “going to be spending a lot of time going up to the Hill, responding to requests for information, answering subpoenas, and briefing member after member,” Julie believes. “The Republican minority on the House side was very frustrated over the last couple of years, based on information they thought they were not able to get from DHS. That’s changing now. Republicans have the power of the subpoena, and I think they’re going to be willing to use that if ICE and DHS don’t work cooperatively.”
Julie was clear that she does see a desire for the agencies to avoid working with the new Congress. “I think they want to, but let me just say, that’s awfully draining for an agency, no matter who’s in charge, to have all these congressional requests. The same people who are the subject matter experts, who are depended on to make sure removals continue, that the investigations continue, those same people are also going to be answering congressional information requests, will be up on the Hill. Arguably, that takes away a lot of time from the core mission of the agency, just answering to all these committees and these individuals that want information.”
I asked Julie about the possibility of restructuring who oversees the agency, in light of reports that more than 80 committees and subcommittees have a piece of DHS oversight. “It would be logical, and frankly it would save Congress a lot of money if they had more streamlined efficiencies and reduced the number of oversight committees. The problem is, I don’t think there’s an incentive for current members of either party to push for this kind of streamlining. Each subcommittee chair who thinks they some area of oversight of DHS sees that as an area of control, that they can influence – possibly for very good reasons.”
“I think it’s going to take some kind of larger event, or outside commission, or somebody else, to reduce congressional oversight [of DHS],” Julie told me. It’s not something that’s going to inherently come about, despite all the advocacy in the past administration, and in this administration, to reduce that oversight.”
Our conversation also covered information sharing among component DHS agencies, other Federal agencies, and state and local jurisdictions; building and keeping a strong workforce; and the challenges of handling threats from different and disparate sources. You can hear the entire conversation by clicking on the audio link.