With 108 Congressional bosses, DHS at oversight 'tipping point'

Thursday - 9/8/2011, 5:50am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

No other agency faces as much congressional oversight as the Homeland Security Department. Not the Defense Department, which answers to 36 committees and subcommittees, or the Veterans Affairs or Justice Departments.

DHS answers to two main authorizing and two main appropriating committees in the House and the Senate. But it also must respond to dozens of other committees and subcommittees that continue to hold legacy oversight responsibilities from the 22 agencies that formed DHS in March 2003. By some estimates, DHS answers to 108 committees and subcommittees across Congress.

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.

Recommendation ignored

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."