What Congress Can Do To Make The Nation Safer

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We tend to believe it is the President, and those working for him in the executive branch, who shoulder the primary burden of protecting the nation against terrorist attack.  Certainly presidents feel that responsibility most acutely.  Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, it was the failures of executive branch agencies – most notably in the intelligence community – that attracted the most scrutiny.  In its comprehensive analysis of the terrorist attacks, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (better known as the 9/11 commission) focused much of its recommendations on restructuring the intelligence community and strengthening border security.  That led to the consolidation of some 22 government departments and agencies into a single Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the creation of a National Counterterrorist Center, headed by a Director of National Intelligence. I have written extensively about the limits of these organizational reforms.

Less well remembered, however, are the 9-11 Commission’s recommendations regarding Congress.  Most notably, it pointed to the fragmented nature of the congressional committee system as a key weakness in the nation’s ability to prevent another attack, and recommended that the congressional oversight of homeland security be strengthened by consolidating the number of committees with oversight responsibility. As the 9-11 commission members wrote: “Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need. The United States needs a strong, stable, and capable congressional committee structure to give America’s national intelligence agencies oversight, support, and leadership.”

A decade later, this key recommendation has been observed mainly in the breach. Indeed, rather than a consolidation, the number of congressional committees and subcommittees claiming some jurisdiction over homeland security has mushroomed, from some 88 a decade ago to more than 100 today.  Many of these committees, such as Agriculture, Judiciary or Small Business, have only tangential relevance, if that, to homeland security.  Why hasn’t Congress complied with the 9-11 commission recommendations?   As the commission itself noted, “To a member, these assignments are almost as important as the map of his or her congressional district.”  Committees provide a jurisdictional platform from which a member of Congress can hold hearings, maintain a public profile and generally maximize those activities designed to bolster electoral support back home.   Members are loathe to give up this base of power.  The result is that, although both chambers of Congress moved quickly after 9-11 to create a single committee of Homeland Security in conjunction with the creation of the DHS, existing committees were reluctant to cede their oversight relations with the almost two dozen executive agencies from which the DHS was formed.  So although the homeland security committee in each chamber exercises primary jurisdiction over the DHS, dozens of other (sub)committees also claim some oversight responsibility

Why does this matter?  Most of what top officials at DHS do is testify before Congress. That process becomes much more time consuming and complex when that testimony is spread across multiple committees.  More significantly, when many committees are charged with oversight, none is truly in charge, and the chain of accountability is weakened.

Two days ago, Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9-11 commission, along with Tom Ridge, who served as the first Homeland Security director under President George W. Bush, appeared before the House’s Homeland Security Committee chaired by Republican Peter King.  If you listen to the testimony, you’ll find that it focuses almost exclusively on the failure of the DNI to serve as an effective point of coordination for the intelligence community, as well as overlapping jurisdictions at the state and local level in responding to national emergencies. Conspicuous in its absence is any mention of the lack of coordination within the congressional committee oversight system.

This is not because members of Congress and those testifying before them don’t recognize the problem. Instead, it is because, as Hamilton has acknowledged, resistance to change among members of Congress makes it unlikely that any reform will take place. “When you’re talking about changing jurisdictions, you’re talking about taking power away from some committees,” Hamilton said. “That is a very difficult thing to do in Congress because the name of the game is power, and people don’t like to give it up.”

To give one example, our own Vermont Senator Pat Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refuses to give up his committee’s oversight of DHS because the agency deals in part with immigration issues that fall under Judiciary’s jurisdiction. Similar arguments are made by his colleagues in both chambers to justify holding onto their own slice of the oversight pie.  Collectively, however, this fragments bureaucratic accountability, complicates the DHS’s job and generally does nothing to strengthen anti-terrorism efforts.

As we mark the 10-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, members of Congress will undoubtedly use their committees and subcommittees as platforms to investigate how well the executive branch has responded to the terrorism threat.  Ironically, the sheer number of these hearings is evidence that Congress has yet to deal with its own organizational weaknesses in the War on Terror.

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