WASHINGTON — This Congress is replete with oversight investigations — the murder of U.S. officials in Libya, the misdeeds of the Internal Revenue Service — that have produced lots of headlines and little substantive change.
When it comes to the most pressing matter, homeland security and the threat of terrorist strikes, there are plenty of congressional eyeballs — by one count, 119 panels.
This generates more chaos and confusion. With duplication and petty turf fights, Republicans and Democrats alike have put parochial politics ahead of security.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which combined 22 government entities, including immigration, nuclear detection, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Then, the 9/11 Commission recommended major changes to reduce the chances of another attack. An important element was the consolidation of congressional oversight responsibilities in order to develop sharper scrutiny and shape priorities for Homeland Security, which was then overseen by 79 separate committees.
The recommendation was ignored.
Last year, the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands and the Aspen Institute convened a bipartisan task force of experts who concluded that this neglect was dangerous and impeded the department’s ability to focus on potential vulnerabilities such as the threats posed by small aircraft, cyber-attacks and biological weapons.
The telling illustration of Congress’s lack of purpose: For 10 years, it hasn’t passed a Homeland Security authorization bill, a measure that would spell out policy priorities. Instead, the agency operates on routine appropriations every year.
Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College who specializes in Congress, says oversight only is effective when it’s bipartisan and adjusts to changing circumstances. Neither is true now.
Politically, a role in Homeland Security is a credential lawmakers like to boast about, and politicians on both sides fight ferociously to protect their privileges.
“Members of Congress would just as soon give up their first born as give up jurisdiction over the executive branch,” said David Drier, a former leading Republican representative.
Top officials from both parties say this crazy quilt arrangement not only is a wasted opportunity for constructive criticism and direction but is also counterproductive, draining time and energy.
“I testified some fifty-five times,” recalls Janet Napolitano, who served as secretary of Homeland Security for 41/2 years under President Barack Obama. These appearances required considerable preparation for her and other officials who were “constantly” summoned to Capitol Hill.
The multiplicity of congressional committees “meant there was very little strategic overview of DHS — too many hearings focused on narrow issues,” she says. “I cannot possibly calculate what alleged congressional oversight cost in dollars and time. Congress needs to fix itself where DHS is concerned.”
Michael Chertoff, who was Homeland Security secretary for four years during the George W. Bush administration, also recalls hundreds of hearings and thousands of briefings each year. This slipshod approach hurts both Congress and the department, he says.
“When there is no clear direction, an agency can cherry-pick among claims,” he says. “That weakens Congress.”
The larger damage is the absence of “consistent guidelines on priorities.” When he was Homeland Security secretary, Chertoff says, he tried to change the focus of the Coast Guard to better reflect emerging threats. It seemed a no-brainer, until several congressional committees got involved and jealous protection of jurisdictional turf complicated necessary change.
Tom Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, says reforming congressional oversight is the only one of the report’s 41 recommendations that was brushed aside.
As the commission gathers this summer for the 10th anniversary of its report to reflect and review challenges, the top priority, he says, will be to pressure the next Congress to consolidate this patchwork system into one joint committee or at least pare it down to several panels.
In the midst of partisan posturing, Kean has a simple message for House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other leaders: “We are less safe because of what you haven’t done.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.