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Congressional oversight of Homeland Security comes under fire again

Panelists say dozens of committees give conflicting direction to beleaguered agency.

Four years after the 9/11 commission recommended that Congress create a "single, principal point of oversight and review," 86 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the Homeland Security Department. That's about 80 too many, in the view of several officials with expertise in DHS operations.

"Congress has protected its prerogatives and privileges at the expense of oversight," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., at a forum on Wednesday sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. Since the start of the 110th Congress, Homeland Security officials have testified at 359 hearings and conducted 4,300 briefings for congressional committees -- most for committees other than the House and Senate homeland security panels.

With so many committees exercising jurisdiction over various aspects of Homeland Security's mission, the department is put in the impossible position of having to satisfy competing and sometimes conflicting demands from Congress, said Rogers, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight. In addition, the demands of reporting to so many committees have put an untenable administrative burden on the department, he said.

"You don't just show up for a hearing; it takes a tremendous amount of preparation," said Paul Schneider, DHS deputy secretary. He said during his first 10 months on the job, he was called to testify nine times. Several times his office sought to provide another witness with greater expertise on a given subject, but those requests were denied, he said.

The department wants and needs oversight, Schneider said, but the current congressional structure significantly hinders management. Schneider is no stranger to working with Congress. During four decades of federal service -- most of it at the Defense Department, along with a stint as senior acquisition executive at the National Security Agency -- he developed an appreciation of the importance of effective oversight. But in the case of Homeland Security oversight, he said, "I think any five people in this room could come up with something better than what we've got."

John Gannon, the first staff director for the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, the precursor to the current House committee, said the creation of the Homeland Security Department was the most significant transfer of political power in government since the1947 National Security Act created the Defense Department.

The inability of Congress to streamline its own operations to reflect changing national security requirements has significantly hurt the department's mission, according to Gannon. "It's a leadership issue" shared by both the White House and Congress, he said.

In September 2007, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described the burden of such fractured oversight in a 16-page letter to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, at King's request.

"Literally thousands of congressional requests -- from many different committees and subcommittees for hearings, briefings, reports and other information -- consume a very significant amount of DHS senior leadership time, which must be balanced with meeting operational mission demands," Chertoff wrote.

DHS doesn't keep track of redundant hearings, but they are frequent. As one example, Chertoff cited 2006 department testimony on worksite enforcement before five different congressional committees: the Senate Judiciary Committee panel on immigration, border security and citizenship; the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee panel on regulatory affairs; the House Ways and Means Committee; the House Small Business Committee panel on workforce, empowerment and government programs; and the House Education and Workforce Committee.

In 2007, Homeland Security was required to provide more than 530 reports to Congress. "Easily well over 100 reports annually require an average of more than 300 man hours to produce," Chertoff wrote, with many others consuming "a bare minimum of 100 hours prior to transmittal." And that doesn't include the time spent responding to several hundred audits and investigations conducted by the Government Accountability Office since 2004.

A 2004 white paper published jointly by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Business Executives for National Security found that by comparison, the Defense Department, which is much larger than Homeland Security, answers to 36 congressional committees or subcommittees, with more than 80 percent of oversight falling to six of those.

"Complaints by Congress that the DHS is not doing enough to implement policy priorities relate back to erratic congressional oversight and conflicting demands on DHS directorates," stated a policy paper by Jena Baker McNeill, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

"The current system is not based on sound management principles. Instead, it imposes confusing and burdensome priorities and directives to the point that congressional oversight threatens the DHS mission," McNeill wrote.

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