Former national security adviser calls for streamlined DHS oversight

Thursday - 8/2/2012, 9:32pm EDT

By Keith BieryGolick
Special to Federal News Radio

The Department of Homeland Security, which answers to 108 committees and subcommittees across Congress, could improve performance and reduce that number by making smarter jurisdiction distinctions based on a committee's area of expertise, according to a former Bush security advisor.

The current system, which merged 22 separate agencies into one newly formed Homeland Security Department following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, spreads the department too thin and sends mixed signals.

"It's redundant. Congress doesn't have the time to have 100 committees working on the same issue," said Fran Townsend, a former assistant to President Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose.

"You can't imagine the hundreds and thousands of wasted hours by executive branch personnel in responding to the letters and inquiries of 100 committees — that they are really required to respond to — when they could be doing more important business for the American people like keeping them safe," she said.

While the oversight system is completely unworkable now, why that intensive level of oversight exists is understandable, Townsend said.

"Remember, this was 22 separate agencies that came together, [when] at the time many of which were different departments," she said. "It wasn't as though they all came from a single place. They'd all been brought together with their own oversight structures in Congress."

The only way forward is compromise, because DHS oversight doesn't have to be an either-or proposition, she said.

"Even if you couldn't get down to a traditional oversight committee like Foreign Affairs or Defense, you could certainly have a structure that reduced the number of committees — even if it was just by subject matter expertise," Townsend said.

Part of the problem, she said, is the diverse missions of the agency. This pulls from the expertise of different congressional committees.

"So you could imagine subject matter jurisdiction being carved up along the lines of some of the agencies," she said. "That's to say all transportation issues would go over to the Transportation Committee, but law enforcement issues might rest in the Judiciary Committee, as they traditionally have prior to the establishment of DHS."

No one disagrees that filling out paper work and filing reports for more than 100 different committees and subcommittees is a waste of DHS' time. But progress has been slow.

President Obama had an opportunity to strengthen DHS' oversight structure after the 2008 election when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, Townsend said.

She said instead, the President chose to work on advancing health care and other policy initiatives.

"Not to say those weren't important, but [DHS oversight issues] really go to the heart of our national security structure and I view that as something of an opportunity lost," she said.

The point is America needs its political leaders to step up and make something happen, Townsend said.

"You need political leadership in the Congress to say: 'Yes, it's going to mean there are fewer committees and chairmanships to give away and assign to members, but it's for the good of the country,'" she said. "There has to be some sense of priority and urgency to this issue if it's ever going to get solved."

In January, House Homeland Security Committee members wrote a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) urging him to consolidate DHS oversight to their committee, but no progress has been made since then.

Keith BieryGolick is an intern at Federal News Radio

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