Turf battles could hamper launch of Homeland Security Department

The already-difficult job of the new Homeland Security Department is complicated by the fact that several congressional committees are vying for oversight.

Last June, President Bush called congressional leaders to the White House to lay out the challenge they faced in creating the massive new Homeland Security Department he had just proposed. "There's going to be a lot of turf protection in the Congress," Bush pointedly warned some of the potential culprits seated around the table in the Cabinet Room. Then, raising the stakes, the president added, "I'm convinced that by working together, we can do what's right for America." It took Congress almost six months of often-bitter debate to get the job done.

The already-difficult job of the new Homeland Security Department is greatly complicated by the fact that multiple congressional committees are vying for oversight rights.

Now, Homeland Security Secretary-Designate Tom Ridge must assemble a functioning team for his new department out of 170,000 employees as diverse as Coast Guard captains, Federal Emergency Management Agency relief workers, former FBI computer experts and Agriculture Department scientists. Meanwhile, he must rely heavily on other still-independent agencies to handle key parts of the homeland security job; the CIA is in charge of intelligence, for example, and the Energy Department manages high-tech research.

Coordinating all of that may be a piece of cake, however, compared with another challenge facing the Bush administration. When asked to name the chief obstacle, one pessimistic yet well-informed official said, "What's going to sink the Department of Homeland Security is the fact that there's no single oversight or Appropriations subcommittee."

That is a stark assessment and, at first, it seems a bewildering one. With all the other problems confronting the new department, how can the biggest one be the seemingly arcane issue of congressional committee organization?

Well, by the White House's count last June, a total of 88 congressional committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over issues related to homeland security, and now the new department will handle many of those issues. That gives the Homeland Security Department a lot of congressional bosses to work with-and answer to-in its drive to make America safer. In fact, at the end of the 107th Congress, the membership of those 88 committees and subcommittees with homeland security jurisdiction included all 100 senators and all but 20 of the 432 House members. These House and Senate panels are chaired by lawmakers who value their gavels highly, and who did not get where they are by stifling their ambition or competitive drive.

In a worst-case scenario, rival chairmen are "going to try to get Ridge involved in their own committee fights" over who has jurisdiction over the new department, predicted a former Pentagon lawyer who advised members of Congress on homeland security legislation. He added that chairmen may schedule competing hearings and tell Ridge, " 'Come to me first, I've got your priority. Yeah, I know this other committee has asked you to testify, but that's our jurisdiction.' Depending on how nasty it gets, subpoenas start flying," the lawyer speculated. "It'll be chaos, and if the congressional leadership isn't willing to step up, it'll fall on Ridge to honor this committee and not that committee."

Members of Congress from time to time bemoan their byzantine committee structures, which have been shaped far more by parochial influence and historical accident than by rational policy making. But members have rarely been willing to modify their committees, because in many cases, they can manipulate the complexities to their advantage. The House and Senate have broad discretion to organize themselves whatever way they wish, giving lawmakers enormous power to meddle.

Nevertheless, a small number of members have been crusading to reorganize the committees in order to oversee the Homeland Security Department more effectively. A week after the November election, the House Republican Conference quietly passed a nonbinding resolution, sponsored by Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., "to consolidate the authorization and appropriations processes" for the new department. Weldon and other reformers argue that a single new committee in each chamber should oversee and authorize all homeland security programs, and that a single Appropriations subcommittee should fund them.

Such an overhaul would take authority away from dozens of chairmen who hold jurisdiction now, many of whom are reluctant to give up that influence. Take House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, whose panel claims responsibility for two of the biggest agencies and half of the federal employees being folded into the new department. Young is adamantly defending his turf. Since Sept. 11, his committee has written the aviation security bill and a maritime safety bill. He's working on rail safety, bridge and dam security and Coast Guard security issues.

"Creating a new committee with members and staff who have little or no experience in dealing with these issues and the agencies themselves would be a huge setback for Congress in trying to have oversight over the workings of the agency," said Young spokesman Steve Hansen. "Most people don't think it's a good idea-talk to probably every chairman and every subcommittee chairman."

But many experts say sharply paring down the number of committees with jurisdiction is the only way to ensure the success of the Homeland Security Department. "If they don't create a separate oversight committee in the House and the Senate, there's never going to be a functioning department," said John Hamre, a former deputy Defense secretary and the current president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You can't create a new department if all the elements of the new department keep going back to their old bosses."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., agreed, calling it "a big mistake" to retain the current committee setup. "It is absurd how many places a secretary of Homeland Security has to report to.... It's just the wrong way to handle it," he said. "How do you get a coherent policy, and how do you get a coherent budget?... There's no place where homeland security is the No. 1 topic." Gingrich contended Congress should create a single authorizing committee and a separate Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, but, he conceded, "They probably won't do it."

Gingrich may be right. But during private meetings the week before Christmas, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and a handful of other top House Republicans decided to take a first step toward a committee reorganization, according to a senior Republican source. When the 108th Congress convenes on Jan. 7, they will ask the House to create a select committee to serve for the next two years coordinating the activities of the various committees with jurisdiction over the Homeland Security Department.

Interestingly, House Republican leaders plan to put forth their proposal for a select committee in a separate resolution rather than including it in the usual opening-day House rules package, which typically is approved by a party-line vote. That may be a signal that Republican leaders are worried about potential opposition from turf-conscious Republicans. The leaders decided at their Dec. 17 meeting to keep their plans secret until they brief the House Republican Conference on the evening of Jan. 6, according to Republicans familiar with the closed-door discussions.

While details regarding the select committee are subject to further negotiation, it probably will have less authority than did the select committee that Hastert created last year to coordinate the House legislation creating the new department. That panel was chaired by then-Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who has retired. With that coordinating committee dissolved, the absence of a clear front-runner to take over its role may make House members open to a new committee of some form. The transitional approach of creating a select committee is designed to give the House time to adjust to the new department. But the delay could entrench bad legislative habits and could jeopardize Bush's managerial goals.

"The Congress loves to shine the light on others.... We make demands on everyone else to streamline and be effective. Congress needs to do the same thing," said Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., an Army reservist who is active on national security issues. "Probably, we'll do it slowly. It's painful for me to say that. I would love for us to see a realignment of the committee structure, (but) what you have are some very powerful committee chairmen.... Not a lot of people in this town give up power."

In the Senate, meanwhile, no changes to the committee structure are imminent. It is unlikely that incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., would want to tackle the issue early in his tenure. For now, the Governmental Affairs Committee, which handled the Senate legislation creating the Homeland Security Department, may be the most aggressive in the power grab over jurisdiction.

Why Congressional Oversight Matters

Congress has four broad areas of responsibility related to the Homeland Security Department: nominations, budget, oversight, and future legislation. The Senate this month is expected to begin confirming Bush's nominees for top department posts, including Ridge and 24 others. Early on, Congress will also be monitoring how the department spends its money, identifying persistent gaps in internal communication, offering legislative fixes as unintended consequences materialize and assessing the department's performance in the event of another attack. Down the line, Congress will have to make important calls on budget priorities and oversee new management and technology. Experts worry that without centralized oversight, the likelihood that Congress will address any of those responsibilities effectively is nearly nonexistent.

Ivo Daalder, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution and a former aide to the National Security Council, sees myriad problems arising from the current committee structure. First, he said, lawmakers will disagree about who is in charge of different parts of the department, making it difficult, if not impossible, to demand accountability. Second, because of the scattered jurisdiction, Congress will have minimal ability to guide homeland security policy as a whole. Third, the committees will nibble the department to death. "You're likely to make a mess of it, because everybody is competing for a piece of the pie, rather than the whole thing," Daalder said.

Homeland security expert Frank Hoffman worries that, without focused congressional oversight, no one will be paying attention to either civil liberties or fiscal responsibility at the new department. Hoffman was a top aide to the commission chaired by former Sens. Gary Hart, D-Colo., and Warren Rudman, R-N.H., whose report on U.S. national security policy provided the foundation for what became the Homeland Security Department. Hoffman said that components such as the Transportation Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are already broken and will need significant parenting by lawmakers who are aware of what is going on elsewhere in the department.

"The mess we're in is in large part an outgrowth of completely dysfunctional oversight of these agencies," said Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and another former National Security Council aide. Without congressional coherence, he added, members of committees with homeland security jurisdiction will be more likely to push for projects that have immediate payoff in their states or districts, such as highway-building, rather than otherwise invisible investments such as monitoring the management of the TSA.

Flynn recently directed a task force, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, that followed up on the Hart-Rudman Commission's initial findings. The task force's report, issued in October, found minimal evidence of progress since Sept. 11 in securing the country against terrorist threats. In a "relatively flat budget environment" (the administration maintains that the Homeland Security Department won't cost any additional money), Flynn said, a department with multiple congressional masters is likely to see some of its components better funded than others-a political reality that will pit agencies against each other at the very time cooperation is most critical.

The creation of the Energy Department in 1977 was the last time Congress consolidated disparate agencies into a new Cabinet department to coordinate the response to a pressing national problem. (In that case, it was the nation's dependence on foreign oil.) But even today, the Energy Department still struggles to mesh its various components effectively. A quarter-century of highly visible scandals-over toxic spills, Chinese spying, missing hard drives, credit card fraud and so forth-hints at broad institutional incoherence within the department. And this dysfunction is mirrored and magnified by the numerous congressional panels with jurisdiction over Energy, an oversight structure that was never significantly reorganized to dovetail with the merged department. DOE answers to some 17 committees and subcommittees on Capitol Hill.

Former Rep. Philip R. Sharp, D-Ind., who helped to oversee the department as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 1975 to 1995, called the situation unworkable. "We had so many different committees in Congress that the leaders of the department were pulled in so many different directions that they couldn't provide the necessary leadership," said Sharp, who is currently a fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a senior adviser to the Van Ness Feldman law firm in Washington.

The tangled chain of command created when the Energy Department was put together is "a model for how not to make a department," said DOE's elder statesman, scientist Sidney Drell. It's also a model for how not to oversee a department. "You're spending a lot of time trying to explain what you're doing to a lot of committees," Drell said. "There's a lot of duplication, (and) the people running the department were torn between the different interests of the different committees."

Adm. James Watkins, the retired chief of naval operations who headed DOE throughout the first President George H.W. Bush's administration, said the oversight by multiple committees "wasn't crippling, but it was a huge problem, because we had to go before two primary committees in the House, for example, that didn't speak to each other." He said he once was impolitic enough to mention one panel's priorities while testifying before another. "I said, 'I'm covering that issue under the jurisdiction of another committee,' " Watkins recalled, "and I was severely chastised."

Current members of Congress who want to streamline the committees with homeland security jurisdiction point to the Energy Department example as a cautionary tale. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who chaired a special panel formed in 1999 to reorganize DOE's national security functions, and who championed a Homeland Security Department long before Sept. 11, lamented that Congress "never really bit the bullet of having clear lines of authority" over Energy.

"We never wanted to face that, because it affects people's jurisdictions and it makes winners and losers," Thornberry said. "No congressional committee had a clear responsibility for making sure things ran properly. And that is what we must avoid with Homeland Security."

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., who co-chaired the special panel on Energy reform with Thornberry, agreed. "It's too many chefs in the kitchen, but nobody accountable," she said. "You can cross your hands over your chest and point your hands to the left and the right at the same time and say, 'They went thataway. It's not that I didn't do it. The other committee didn't do it.' "

Reform Efforts Of The Past

The current committee structure on Capitol Hill dates back to a comprehensive congressional reorganization in 1946. In that shuffle, the House reduced its committees from 48 to 19, and the Senate cut its panels down from 33 to 15. In addition, committee jurisdictions were written into the rules for the first time. The reorganization consolidated military oversight under the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which proved fortunate the following year, when Congress passed the National Security Act merging all of the armed services under the Defense Department.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 came at a time when government clearly needed modernization after the Great Depression and World War II, and when Congress itself was relatively weak. And many older members who might have objected to such reforms were retiring after hanging on through the war. "You had, for all practical purposes, a fresh start," Hamre said.

Committee reform again became a hot topic in Congress during the 1970s, both before and after the Energy Department was born. The most serious effort came from a bipartisan House select committee chaired by former Rep. Richard Bolling, D-Mo., who in 1974 championed a comprehensive overhaul that would have rationalized the committee structure and consolidated jurisdiction along subject lines. A key piece of the select committee's package was a new Energy and Environment Committee, which would have superseded the work of five other House committees. But the sweeping proposal fueled intense opposition from a cross section of committee barons. The House Democratic Caucus instead developed a far more limited plan that largely kept the existing structure intact.

During the remainder of the Democrats' 40-year reign over the House, committee reorganization efforts were "fruitless," Sharp said. "Reform must be a leadership issue," he said. "If they don't take it on at the outset, it becomes more difficult to do when committee leaders are more certain of their influence" on an issue.

When the Republicans captured House control in 1994, Speaker Gingrich centralized authority in the leadership and required committee chairmen to follow his broad agenda. But the new Republican majority made only modest changes in the encrusted committee structure that House Democrats had built. Republicans eliminated just three minor committees-District of Columbia, Merchant Marine and Fisheries, and Post Office and Civil Service-that served mostly Democratic constituencies, although they did significantly reduce the number of committee staff across the board.

"We changed a few small things, but not many," Gingrich conceded. "People go in and they pick a committee to spend their career on.... You're now coming in with what is a very personal request -you're asking them to change their career, their power, their importance," he said. "The human reaction is to say no."

Don't Tread On Me

The best bet for wholesale committee reform now would be a lightning strike by the leadership. In theory, leaders in both chambers could quickly clip the existing committees' wings before chairmen got too comfortable in their homeland security prerogatives-especially in the Senate, where the Republican takeover changes the leadership of every committee. But such a plan does not appear to be in the offing.

Instead, House leaders are poised to take an interim step by proposing the new select committee to coordinate the various committees with jurisdiction over the Homeland Security Department, and Senate leaders plan to do nothing for now. The leaders' reluctance to go further is not all that surprising, given that chairmen are already sending strong signals of "don't tread on me."

One such message is coming from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is taking over as chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Collins has been arguing that because her committee handled the bill establishing the new department, the panel should be responsible for seeing the job through.

Incoming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, is also protecting his turf. "We made it clear during statements in the record that we intended to keep jurisdiction over Customs," Grassley said. "We would not have jurisdiction over (confirmation) hearings on the secretary of Homeland Security. Presumably, that's Governmental Affairs. But we would still have jurisdiction over this stuff. And maybe it would end up being joint jurisdiction." And Grassley, who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee, added, "I would hope Immigration (jurisdiction over the Immigration and Naturalization Service) would still be within Judiciary."

In the House, Hastert's plan for a new select committee will be a hard sell to notoriously hard-driving chairmen of such key committees as Judiciary, Transportation and Infrastructure and Ways and Means. Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., said while he's "not a knee-jerk opponent" of consolidating jurisdiction over homeland security, proponents have the burden of proof "to show that it can be done in a way to provide more-effective oversight." Sensenbrenner noted, for example, that if oversight of the INS is handed to a new committee with no experience in immigration law, it won't have the expertise to monitor the agency effectively.

Even members with relatively small stakes have sworn resistance to change. For instance, jurisdiction over a disease-research facility on tiny Plum Island, off Long Island, N.Y., is slated to move from the Agriculture Department to the Homeland Security Department. But outgoing Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, "is going to fight and definitely work to make sure that Plum Island would stay under the jurisdiction, at least for oversight, of the Agriculture Committee," said spokesman Seth Boffeli. "The research they do is critical for agricultural safety and farming."

The impending Battle of Plum Island underlines the biggest obstacle to change: Because the challenge of homeland security cuts across so many different issues-from public health to disaster relief to intelligence-every part of the new department is important to more than one lawmaker for more than one reason. The Coast Guard, for example, not only provides security along the shores but also protects the environment and maintains navigation buoys. And so, many members contend that they have a legitimate interest in retaining their jurisdiction.

"There are many members who have very specific expertise built up over the years" regarding one agency or another, said a House Appropriations Committee Democratic staffer. "We wouldn't want (them) to be summarily cut out. I very much hope the Republican leadership does not insert itself into the process at the micro level in terms of reorganizing committees," the staffer said. "It would be a mistake for Republican leaders to say, 'This is how it's going to be, and that's it.'"

Potential Paths For Congress

In the face of such resistance, even some strong advocates of committee reform are calling for cautious change. "There are arguments for just bearing down and doing it, and there are arguments for phasing it in," Tauscher said. "Wild gyrations of organizations, even when they're well intended, have serious deleterious effects, so maybe we need to figure out how to do this in a bite-size way. But we need to be moving forward," she said. "I don't think any of us are interested in leading the American people to believe that we are more interested in protecting turf than we are in protecting them."

But assembling even a select coordinating committee without treading on too many toes would take some time. And larger questions loom about the authority of a new committee-even a temporary one-in one, or both, chambers.

The Hart-Rudman Commission tried to achieve a balance between coherent organization and turf sensitivities by calling for a select oversight committee in each chamber, composed of members of the committees currently involved in homeland security. But such a committee would have no powers of appropriation or authorization, according to the Hart-Rudman model. Gingrich and former House International Relations Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., helped to craft that proposal. "We did not win any debates about moving committees," said former commission aide Hoffman. "We had to make sure that when the music stopped, everybody had a chair and had something to do."

Since then, some well-placed Republicans have developed variations on that theme. After reading the Hart-Rudman report and its predecessors and holding hearings on the threat of terrorism, Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Robert Bennett, R-Utah, put together a proposal in the spring of 2001 to establish a Senate select committee on homeland security. The committee would have two ex officio chairs, the majority and minority leaders, plus two "worker-bee chairmen," one from each party, Roberts said. Then, as security issues arose, the committee could pull in a handful of chairmen from other committees and subcommittees to address problems quickly. "It would be a facilitator, a grand central station, a belly-button kind of thing," he said.

Roberts's proposal was later overtaken by other post-Sept. 11 priorities. He pushed to include a chapter on congressional reform in the Select Intelligence Committee's report on Sept. 11 that was released last month, but he lost. Roberts is now taking over as Intelligence Committee chairman, and he vows, "I'm not giving up."

Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, established a Terrorism and Homeland Security working group in early 2001 at the leadership's request. After Sept. 11, it became an Intelligence subcommittee. Now, Goss says, the House needs a more formalized entity to handle the new Homeland Security Department. "I don't care what they call it," he said. It should involve "regularly interested" members on homeland security and should be flexible enough to pull in relevant committee chairmen, depending on the topic du jour. "We've used (that model), and it's worked," Goss said.

But the Homeland Security Department wasn't born of the easy-does-it approach. Daalder and other experts say Congress needs to step up and create a new standing committee on homeland security, plus an Appropriations subcommittee. The longer Congress drags out its disconnected oversight, these experts argue, the less likely it is that change will come and the more likely that chaos will reign at the new department.

Likewise, Thornberry warned that with agencies on a tight schedule to move to the new department, "we can't have a six-month dispute over who gives up jurisdiction. If we're going to play our role, Congress needs to hit the ground running in January," he said. "These early months of a new department are going to be critical-not only in setting it up for decades to come, but while you're setting it up, not losing any ground in day-to-day missions."

The White House, while clearly an interested party, is letting Congress decide how to oversee the Homeland Security Department. "We think that if they undertook some reorganization with regard to how they look at this new department and deal with this new department, it might streamline some of the processes," said Homeland Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "But beyond that, their reorganization is up to them."

Surely the president won't want his newly ensconced Secretary Ridge spending all his time running around Capitol Hill to testify before 88 panels of one interest or another. If Bush wants Congress to realign itself with the executive branch, he may have to expend some political capital. And don't forget that congressional Republicans are still euphoric over the gains they made in the November election with the help of their popular president.

"If there is any reluctance among Republicans (to reorganize the committees), that would melt away if there were a signal from the White House," said a top aide to a House chairman. "No one will stand in the way if the president says an action is important for homeland security."

Well, that may be stretching it. But if Bush could convince veteran committee chairmen that it's in their interests to relinquish their turf, that indeed would be the strongest indication yet of his power.

Staff Correspondent Marilyn Werber Serafini contributed to this article.