A proposed spending authorization bill for the Department of Homeland Security would implement one of the remaining recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission that Congress has virtually ignored until now.

More than 100 committees and subcommittees in Congress today exercise jurisdiction over DHS, the nation’s newest sprawling bureaucracy, and lawmakers are reluctant to give up any political turf they may have as a result, even if it could lead to clearer and more efficient direction for the department.

Elevated Risk in recent months has described the annual homeland security appropriations bill as the latest home for tens of millions of dollars in unregulated earmarks policymakers secure for their constituents back home. Legislators are apparently just as eager to make certain those same constituents see them on C-SPAN leading hearings on the nation’s security.

But members of the 9/11 Commission have long complained about the complex tangle of congressional oversight that results in senior DHS officials spending much of their time in testimony before Congress rather than working on actual tasks that enhance emergency preparedness and defenses against terrorism. Department officials attended nearly 400 hearings over a recent two-year period and provided more than 5,000 briefings to congressional staffers and their bosses.

Our colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity last year published a lengthy story on the problem reporting that congressional leaders caved to pressure from powerful committee chairs seeking to maintain fiefdoms that gave them a say in as much about federal government policy and spending as possible.

By comparison, CPI found, the similarly sized Department of Veterans Affairs testified at half the number of hearings in front of just two committees and gave around 400 briefings during the same time frame.

The latest reform effort could lead to a nasty dispute, however. One former Republican staffer for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Michael Bopp, recalled for CPI an earlier attempt at streamlining homeland security oversight that devolved into “by far the ugliest and lowest point of my career on the Hill.”

A resolution by the Senate majority and minority whips would have handed the reigns largely over to governmental affairs where Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut had already positioned themselves as loud voices on issues related to homeland security. Their panel did eventually become known as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Under the past proposal, some influence would have nonetheless been left behind for the finance and commerce committees, such as limited control of the Customs Service, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard. But procedural maneuvering showed that wasn’t enough, according to CPI:

The resolution was on the floor, and the ranking member of the finance committee, Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat of Montana, was offering an amendment to take back still more DHS customs functions. By the time Bopp had rushed to the floor, the amendment had passed. One of [Kentucky Republican Mitch] McConnell’s aids apologized to him saying it was too late to do anything about it. Once the Baucus amendment passed, the flood gates flew open, and it was clear that neither [Nevada Democrat Harry] Reid nor McConnell would go the mat for their plan. Collins and Lieberman, then ranking Democrat for governmental affairs, took to the floor to argue for streamlining jurisdiction – keeping hold of their new turf – but over the next two days, a parade of testy committee leaders used amendments to take back jurisdiction they would have relinquished under the resolution’s original terms. Their sense, as [Alaska Republican Ted] Stevens put it: ‘We didn’t need the 9/11 Commission to tell us what to do.’

No amount of shaming from the commission or editorials in major newspapers have changed that attitude so far. Text in the latest bill, a larger measure that authorizes appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security’s 2011 fiscal year, points to a 2008 New York Times editorial calling the failure to act “a comedy that invites fresh tragedy unless congressional leaders finally resolve to streamline down to a few dedicated panels.” Former homeland security chief Michael Chertoff once called it “the single most important step Congress can take to improve operational effectiveness” at the department.

And the 9/11 Commission said in its final report that restructuring oversight may be among the most essential and challenging of its recommendations. “Few things are more difficult to change in Washington than congressional committee jurisdiction and prerogatives. To a member, these assignments are almost as important as the map of his or her congressional district. The American people may have to insist that these changes occur, or they may well not happen.”

More recently at a May hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, former politicians Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, who led the historic commission, criticized the still-splintered oversight configuration and said “the jurisdictional melee among the scores of congressional committees has led to conflicting and contradictory tasks and mandates for DHS. Without taking serious action, we fear this unworkable system could make the country less safe.”

So how would reform work now? Elevated Risk placed calls to the office of New York GOP Congressman Pete King, sponsor of H.R. 5590, seeking comment on whether his office expected fierce resistance. A spokesman didn’t get back to us before deadline. The text of the bill says only that the House speaker “shall consider” the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and to the “extent feasible” minimize the impact of including multiple committees in the debate over homeland security.


A graphic put together by the House Homeland Security Committee’s Republican staff illustrates the total number of panels that share jurisdiction over homeland security issues. Click image to enlarge.


Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky introduces a resolution in 2004 to reduce the vast array of committees that wield influence over DHS. The resolution was ultimately weakened as individual lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Max Baukus of Montana sought to keep from losing clout in their committees. Video courtesy of C-SPAN.

Flickr image by Rob Shenk

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.