On Wednesday, The Heritage Foundation hosted Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) and a panel of commentators to discuss the chaos in Congress’ oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. Congressman Rogers, who is the ranking member on the Management, Investigations and Oversight subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, did an outstanding job of setting out the foundation for why the current system of oversight is broken and why that creates unnecessary vulnerabilities.

I was honored to be on the panel, chaired by Jim Carafano, along with DHS Deputy Secretary Paul Schneider and John Gannon (now with BAE Systems) who was the first Chief of Staff for the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. We were surprised by the large audience in attendance, given this t might be considered an “Inside the Beltway” issue. But the issue IS important and the problems with having 86 Congressional Committees oversee DHS activities are immense.

It is not just the 128 hearings and over 1750 briefings that DHS has been required to attend thus far in 2008 that overly ties down Department officials at a time when the focus should be on transition issues and threat mitigation instead of serving as a Congressional “whipping boy.” It is the countless “unreported” calls and letters from Members of Congress that constitutes more “overkill” than “oversight.” No need to rehash the logic behind the 9-11 Commission Report that explained why oversight jurisdiction should be consolidated in a single oversight committee, much as Congress has done with other federal agencies – Congressman Rogers did that quite well yesterday.

Fellow Security DeBrief blogger Tom Blank asked one of the best questions of the session – and that was why wasn’t the Department more assertive in standing up to unreasonable Congressional demands, and why didn’t DHS provide Congressional committees with the actual “cost” of meeting their demands? It was a very fair question, and Deputy Secretary Schneider recounted his initial experiences after joining DHS where one congressional committee threatened him with a subpoena if he did not appear – and it was not from one of the “primary” oversight committees! I weighed in that such a response would come across as “whining” if it came from a member of the executive branch unless they were from the same political party. I am not sure that is the best answer to Tom’s question, and I hope others will pick up the Tom’s challenge to see if Congress is willing to give any deference to a co-equal branch of government, or whether it will continue to use them for partisan, political purposes, as several people implied from the questions they asked.

The debate will continue and, with persistence, common sense oversight will prevail – one hopes.

Editor’s Note: David Olive was also interviewed about this topic on Federal News Radio’s Morning Drive.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More