Homeland Security Revamp Effort Seeks to Skirt Turf Skirmishes

  • Democrats push changes to DHS structure, headquarters
  • Past restructuring efforts stymied by splintered oversight

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House lawmakers are vying to reshape the Department of Homeland Security — a sprawling agency formed to thwart international terrorism that’s had to adapt to shifting missions over its 20-year existence.

Lawmakers have discussed for years how to overhaul the department — widely considered to need changes — without reaching a solution. The House Homeland Security Committee, aiming to succeed this time, will meet Thursday to weigh new legislation and hear from national security professionals who’ve called for molding DHS and its varied components into a more cohesive and accountable unit.

Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images
A patrol car with the Department of Homeland Security logo blocks the street outside the Department of Veterans Affairs on July 27, 2017, in Washington, DC.

The agenda features a recently reintroduced bill (H.R. 4357) from Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and other committee Democrats that aims to insulate DHS from politics, increase oversight of its law enforcement branches, and expand the role of in-house civil rights officials.

Past efforts to revamp the department foundered in part because lawmakers are reluctant to give up their own powers in the name of unifying oversight.

“If past is prologue, a DHS authorization or reauthorization or reform bill has a big uphill battle,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, a homeland security policy adviser under President George W. Bush who’s now at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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‘Like a Holding Company’

DHS’s creation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks pulled together a diverse set of federal agencies handling immigration, border protection, disaster relief, and other matters. As new threats have emerged, its mission expanded to include cybersecurity, election security, and domestic terrorism.

“What they really need to do is strengthen the center of DHS,” said Paul Rosenzweig, another Bush-era DHS official who’s now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a Washington organization that backs free markets and limited government. “The secretary’s office is like a holding company with eight subsidiaries, each of which acts pretty much independently.”

Former DHS leaders, think tanks, and national security organizations have repeatedly warned that DHS’s diffuse structure hinders the mission of keeping Americans safe. Thompson’s bill attempts to address some of those concerns by adding an associate secretary to help manage the agency’s components, setting new limits on who may serve as an acting secretary, and expanding the role of DHS civil rights officials.

Tom Warrick of the Atlantic Council, Carrie Cordero of the Center for a New American Security, and Katrina Mulligan of the Center for American Progress are scheduled to testify at Thursday’s hearing. All are former national security officials who’ve written recent reports recommending an overhaul for the agency.

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Splintered Oversight

Congressional power struggles are a key impediment to reshaping DHS, Warrick and other critics say. Lawmakers failed to consolidate oversight authority — which spans more than 90 panels, by some estimates — when they created the department in 2002.

“Every congressional member has to acknowledge that the Department of Homeland Security will never be fully functional until there is one committee for oversight,” said Obama-era senior DHS official Connie LaRossa, now a lobbyist for Cornerstone Government Affairs, a lobbying and consulting group.

Scattered congressional oversight remains the only unaddressed major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, the independent body created to study the terrorist attacks and determine how to protect against others.

The jurisdictional tangle means any broad homeland security legislation must clear multiple committees with differing priorities. House lawmakers overcame the morass once, but only after carefully coordinating across several committees to advance bills in their respective jurisdictions and then bundling them in a bipartisan DHS authorization bill in 2017.

Even then, the legislation never got a vote on the Senate floor. Periodic efforts to streamline committee authority have fallen flat.

“Jurisdiction over government agencies is such an inside-the-D.C.-beltway kind of thing,” Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center said. “There’s not a lobby out there trying to make it happen.”

Thompson last year pleaded with the House Rules Committee to give his panel primary jurisdiction over DHS to address key Trump-era controversies, including separation of families at the border and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to natural disasters.

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‘It’s Hard’

The Mississippi congressman never got his wish. House committee leaders instead brokered a memorandum of understanding in January committing to collaborate on homeland security and help move a broad DHS authorization bill.

Lawmakers set on reshaping DHS have to navigate the existing system deftly and build broad support in both chambers and the agency at the outset, Andrew Howell, a partner with the lobbying firm Monument Advocacy, said.

“If you can combine those three elements—House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, and the Biden administration’s senior team—I think that you could create the opportunity for legislation to move forward” he said. “It’s hard.”

John Katko (N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, is still reviewing Thompson’s bill.

The Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether it supports the legislation.

Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who leads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement that he looks forward to “working with my colleagues in the House to find commonsense solutions that will ensure the Department can adequately protect the American people.”

Thompson stressed the importance of getting traction.

“It is critical that reforms be put in place that not only guard against the risk of future abuses but also enhance DHS’ capacity to bolster integration and operations,” he said in a statement to Bloomberg Government. “We look forward to turning to this legislation in the coming months.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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