Monday, October 24, 2016

Congressional oversight - or oversights - over the Department of Homeland Security

In an occasional series of blog posts on organizational structure, I find myself often using the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as an example. Not because DHS is extremely different from all other organizations, but because DHS easily exhibits things that can be found in many organizations, including your own.

In short, organizations are not unified entities.

Now, as I noted back in 2013, we were all told that DHS would be a single unified entity. In that post, I quoted from a web page (that no longer exists) that reminds of us the history of the DHS:

The National Strategy for Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Act of 2002 called for the formation of the DHS, which was established to provide a unifying agency for the many national organizations that serve to secure the United States.

In that same post, I noted that this dream was just a dream. The post discussed the resignation of DHS' Chief Information Officer Richard Spires, in part because the constituent agencies within DHS didn't want an overall CIO over everybody.

And in June of this year, I chronicled the fight between USCIS and ICE. Syed Farook's friend Enrique Marquez was in a USCIS facility, and ICE wanted to detain Marquez because of his alleged connection to Farook's actions. A Senate committee - or, more accurately, the Republicans on a Senate committee - described what happened:

The DHS OIG report found that USCIS “improperly delayed HSI agents from conducting a lawful and routine law enforcement action.” The HSI agents waited 20 to 30 minutes in accessing the USCIS building because the USCIS field office director incorrectly asserted that she had authority to determine who could and could not enter the building. The report states that the HSI agents should have been allowed to enter the building immediately after they had identified themselves and explained their purpose. The USCIS field office director incorrectly asserted that USCIS policy prohibited making an arrest or detention at a USCIS facility.

Which brings us to the Senate and to the House - or Congress, which created the Department of Homeland Security and has oversight over it. Surely Congress can straighten things out, can't they? Well, a more recent report suggests that Congress is dysfunctional - and I'm NOT talking about the divisions between Republicans and Democrats.

The co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense said in a statement that the “current congressional oversight structure is severely fractured, resulting in reactive policymaking that threatens America’s ability to combat biological threats."

In preparation for the organization of the 115th Congress, the co-chairs of the panel wrote Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), chair of the House Committee on Rules, asking that special consideration be given to the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Homeland Security regarding biodefense and security.

“The issues facing the safety of our homeland are a priority for Congress and the constituents you serve,” wrote panel co-chairman former Sen. Joe Lieberman and the first Department of Homeland Security Secretary (DHS) Tom Ridge. “However, the current congressional oversight structure is severely fractured, diluting focus and often resulting in reactive policymaking.”

The authors noted that two independent, bipartisan review Commissions – the Kean-Hamilton 9/11 Commission and the Graham-Talent WMD Commission – called for a more centralized oversight structure in Congress to provide a greater focus on national security programs.

I'll get back to this in a minute, but first let's see what the biodefense panel said.

“While the House did create the Homeland Security Committee in response to the 9/11 Commission recommendations, jurisdiction of the agencies that were moved to the DHS remains with other committees,” their letter to session said.

“This decentralized framework does a disservice to Congress by diminishing its ability to effectively oversee and implement homeland security policy,” the letter continued. “As chairmen of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, we have become increasingly concerned that more than 20 congressional committees have biodefense jurisdiction, but only a small handful spend any time actually focusing on biodefense. This selective oversight reflects insufficient congressional engagement related to many of the most significant biodefense challenges America faces.”

On the one hand, the blue ribbon panel has a good point. How can we expect DHS to behave in a unified fashion when its work is being authorized by more than 20 different congressional committees?

But on the other hand, why was the panel itself called the panel on biodefense? Why wasn't it called the panel on homeland security? They pretty much are saying that they care about biodefense and that's it. In the same way, the 9/11 Commission probably didn't give a hoot about the Coast Guard, and the WMD Commission didn't give a hoot about any DHS stuff not having to do with WMDs.

What we're seeing from all sides is a fracturization of purpose - the organization itself is fractured, the Congressional oversight committees are fractured, and the independent panels and commissions are fractured. Rampant fracturization, indeed!

Or perhaps not. Fracturization is probably a Department of Energy issue.
blog comments powered by Disqus