Lawmaker probes need to streamline Homeland Security oversight

Possibly provoking a major fight between powerful committee chairmen, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has asked the Government Accountability Office to review whether Congress' oversight structure is negatively affecting homeland security activities.

Thompson said he is open to revisiting whether Congress should undertake a reorganization to consolidate its oversight of the Homeland Security Department. But he said he wants GAO to report back before any legislation is crafted.

House Homeland Security ranking member Peter King, R-N.Y., said a GAO report might be a good idea, but is not necessary. He is already convinced that the congressional oversight structure is an impediment to homeland security and needs to be overhauled.

"We know the impact it has," King said. "This is a major issue that has to be addressed ... I feel very strongly about it."

He said the duplication of appearances at congressional hearings by Homeland Security officials is a major problem and is damaging the department's ability to carry out its duties.

The department was created four years ago by merging 22 agencies. But powerful committees and their chairmen have been reluctant to relinquish control over parts of the department that fall within their jurisdiction.

Department officials report to about 88 committees and subcommittees, according to department statistics.

"Obviously there are a number of jurisdictional challenges to go through other committees," Thompson said in an interview.

In a letter he sent Monday, Thompson asked GAO to determine the exact number of committees department officials have appeared before in the last three years, and how that compares to officials from other federal departments and agencies.

"In essence, a controversy seems to exist concerning whether the current congressional oversight framework adversely impacts the department," Thompson wrote. "While I am not requesting that you resolve this controversy, I am seeking an explanation of the unique jurisdictional situation confronting the department and whether that situation may play a role in the department's position on the GAO high risk list."

One of the 9/11 Commission's key recommendations was that Congress should create a single, principal point of oversight for homeland security affairs.

Although Democrats campaigned last year on a pledge to enact all of the commission's recommendations, they did not require congressional consolidation in the recently approved 9/11 bill.

The bill was sent to President Bush on Wednesday, but passage was delayed for months by jurisdictional disputes between committees.

When Republicans controlled Congress, they created the House Homeland Security Committee and made it a permanent standing committee. They also merged most of the oversight in the Senate under the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. They never fully fulfilled the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, either.

"While the House of Representatives has established the Committee on Homeland Security and granted this committee the status of a standing permanent committee in accord with the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, this committee is not the single and principal point of oversight and review for the Department of Homeland Security," Thompson wrote.

"Meanwhile, departmental officials have indicated that oversight by a host of congressional entities impedes their ability to perform their core functions and accomplish the integration and transformation of these 22 separate agencies into one unified department," he added.

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