Oversight of homeland security issues called weak
"We did not get a big bang of congressional reorganization," Thomas Mann, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution, said about jurisdictional changes for House and Senate committees in the 109th Congress. "There will be battles under way for some period of time."
Mann, along with Edwin Meese, an attorney general during the Reagan administration, said the House Homeland Security Committee includes the "old bulls" of the House, such as Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., to protect their panels' turf over security issues. "It sows the seed for conflict," Meese said.
And former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Indiana Democrat who was vice chairman on the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said the oversight powers of the recently named Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are weak. The Senate agreed to rename the panel last year, but during debate powerful committee chairmen carved away meaningful jurisdiction from the panel.
Both the House and Senate panels have jurisdiction over the Homeland Security Department, but Mann argued that more relevant intelligence and security activities occur outside the department.
Mann also said robust oversight would move "incrementally" this year, and he called on House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to ensure that the committees receive primary referrals over security legislation and exclusive authority to draft measures to reauthorize department programs.
On intelligence oversight, the experts called on the Senate to follow through on its plans to create an intelligence subcommittee on the Appropriations Committee.
Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, a senior Appropriations member, recently said an intelligence subcommittee may not be created because it would jeopardize keeping the budget for intelligence activities classified. Meese disputed Specter's argument, saying that because the top-line figure is classified, Congress needs a subcommittee to exclusively oversee agencies that are outside the domain of public scrutiny.
Hamilton said Congress must follow the Sept. 11 commission's recommendation to have permanent committees with exclusive jurisdiction on intelligence and homeland security.
"We all understand that information is power in this town," he said. "The agency with information has the power to control and dominate that information ... and you have a leg up."
The experts also argued that over the years the willingness of Congress to conduct aggressive oversight has eroded because the political stakes of criticizing party leadership are perceived as too high.
Mann also said that more centralized power within the leadership, which began when Democrats were in control of both chambers and has been accelerated under GOP control, has eroded the power of committee chairmen and their ability to conduct oversight.