Within the past few weeks, testimony from former Congressman Lee Hamilton and an Associated Press story both highlighted the cost — in time and money, if not security — of overlapping jurisdiction of congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. The AP story contained disturbing metrics about the volume of congressional requests and cost of responding to them.
“Officials and staff spent about 66 work years responding to questions from Congress in 2009 alone. That same year, Homeland Security officials say they answered 11,680 letters, gave 2,058 briefings and sent 232 witnesses to 166 hearings. All this at a cost to taxpayers of about $10 million.” INSIDE WASHINGTON: DHS most overseen department (AP) – May 17, 2011
Former Congressman Hamilton, who is co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG), a successor to the 9/11 Commission which he also co-chaired, echoed these metrics in his testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee hearing on “Threats to the American Homeland after Killing Bin Laden: An Assessment,” May 25, 2011, and concluded:
“This is an inefficient allocation of limited resources needed to secure our nation. Moreover, the massive department will be better integrated if there is integrated oversight.”
If this Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, stands for anything this session, one might believe that it would be laser-focused on eliminating “inefficient allocations of limited resources.”
But the power of entrenched congressional committee chairs is not easily relinquished, as evidenced by the comments by House Judiciary Chair, Lamar Smith (R-TX21,) who told the Associated Press that Congress intended a “purposeful redundancy” when it created the DHS.
“Many of our immigration policies are enforced outside of the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security by federal agencies, including the Justice and State departments,” Smith said. “Just as multiple agencies are involved in the enforcement of our immigration laws and the security of our border, multiple congressional committees are involved in overseeing the government’s efforts to keep our country safe.”
A “purposeful redundancy?” Are you kiddin’ me? Does Rep. Lamar Smith think Congress is a NASA space capsule? When one is in the vacuum of space, having operational back-up systems is often necessary to survival for astronauts. When one is a Member of Congress and argues that overlapping jurisdiction is necessary for the survival of the republic, as Smith implies, then I wonder whether there is a vacuum in understanding that real government reform includes congressional reform in addition to reforming executive branch agencies.
One of the big problems I have with statements like the one from Rep. Smith is that it creates the impression that Congress is hypocritical in its approach to eliminating waste and preventing duplication. A look at Smith’s congressional web site explains why.
On September 20, 2010, Rep. Smith wrote a column entitled, “It’s Time for Washington to Listen.” After recounting numerous constituent requests for smaller government, reduced spending and less regulatory burdens on small business, Smith wrote:
“Based on what I heard from my constituents, job creation, spending restraint and government reform are what they care about most. It’s clear that Americans want better solutions, a new way forward, and most of all, they want to know their voices are being heard…The American people are speaking out. It’s time for Washington to listen.” (emphasis added)
Yet here we are some eight months later, and Rep. Smith is not listening to the government reform and spending restraint messages that are being presented by a multitude of voices.
The shame of it is that he is not alone in his political “deafness” about the need to bring sanity and fiscal responsibility to congressional oversight of DHS. Not only has the Republican House leadership refused to deal with the issue, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership of the previous Congress were equally adept at ignoring the need for congressional reform of DHS oversight.
With the 10th anniversary of the terrorists’ attacks of September 11th looming, perhaps there might be a few “better angels” in Congress who would step up to address the issue head-on. There is no reason for this one remaining major recommendation of the 9-11 Commission to remain in the “unfinished” category.
“Purposeful redundancy” is a synonym for “waste” and that kind of thinking needs to be changed.
Getting the congressional labyrinth of DHS oversight fixed by September 11, 2011, is a worthy goal that the advocates of “better government” should pursue. The question is, as Rep. Lamar Smith so aptly said it last year, whether Washington is listening.