Wednesday, January 25, 2012

House Homeland Security lawmakers request sole oversight of DHS

The top House Republican and Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee have asked Speaker John Boehner to consolidate congressional oversight of the Homeland Security Department within one House committee -- theirs.

On Tuesday evening, Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., and ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., announced they had sent Boehner, R-Ohio, this request to underscore the dismay that President Obama recently expressed over congressional oversight of DHS, itself an amalgam of 22 separate agencies, now reporting to 100 different committees and panels. The president noted the wasteful irony in a Jan. 13 speech that proposed simplifying government services by combining into one department the six agencies that currently deal with business and trade.

The House lawmakers urged Boehner to "consolidate jurisdiction over DHS so that the House's ability to streamline federal programs, enact cost saving reforms, and effectively and efficiently authorize programs critical to the security of our nation is no longer obstructed."

The formation of DHS, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, marked the largest government reorganization since the creation of the Defense Department after World War II, the committee leaders stated. For its part, the House forged a new standing committee on homeland security, they noted, but "rather than consolidating jurisdiction and providing the newly formed DHS with a principal point of oversight and review, as was done for DoD, the House failed to vest the committee with adequate jurisdictional authority."

Last August, the heads of the 9/11 commission, former Republican New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., also criticized Congress' lack of progress, a decade later, on shrinking the number of congressional panels overseeing the department.

In 2010, commission members told a Senate panel that "without taking serious action, we fear this unworkable system could make the country less safe." The department is responsible for coordinating emergency response, immigration enforcement and critical infrastructure protection, among many other counterterrorism activities.

On the subject of cybersecurity alone, Congress since April 2011 has brought in DHS officials for roughly 10 hearings, including sessions at the House committees on Homeland Security, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform. Some of the same Homeland Security experts took redundant questions on the nature of network protection. The upshot, according to political observers: There is a handful of stalled, competing cybersecurity bills, while not a week goes by without a high-profile hack.

Obama's Tuesday night State of the Union Address noted that the White House is waiting for congressional action on that particular national security issue. "To stay one step ahead of our adversaries, I have already sent this Congress legislation that will secure our country from the growing danger of cyber threats," his written remarks stated.

The odds of the House Homeland Security Committee members mounting a power grab aren't high, even they admit. "Members of the 9/11 commission have repeatedly acknowledged, including in the 911 commission report, that of all of their recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult," the committee chairman and ranking Democrat wrote, adding that they hold "an appreciation for the truth of that statement," but still urge the speaker to consider a jurisdictional merger.

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