According to a recent AP story, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “answered 11,580 letters, gave 2,058 briefings, and sent 232 witnesses to 166 hearings” in 2009.
The time it took for DHS to answer all these congressional inquiries is so great that it can’t be measured in hours, days, or even weeks. Rather, in 2009 alone, DHS officials apparently spent an equivalent of 66 work years responding to these congressional requests. If those numbers didn’t have your head spinning already, the total cost to U.S. taxpayers for all these efforts was roughly $10 million.
The reason for this vast expenditure of time and energy is the sprawling system of congressional oversight put upon DHS. DHS is subject to oversight from a total of 108 congressional committees, subcommittees, and caucuses. To put this in perspective, that is approximately four times as many committees and subcommittees as those that have authority over both the Departments of State and Justice combined. Even the Department of Defense—with a budget 10 times greater than DHS’s and millions more employees—answers to only 36 congressional committees and subcommittees.
To be fair, the current system of congressional oversight is a symptom of the manner in which the DHS was created. DHS combined 22 previously separate agencies under a single umbrella. Rather than consolidate congressional oversight of all these agencies at the same time, congressional leadership chose to leave oversight of various activities of DHS with each of the original committees.
Yet, over time, as DHS has matured into a more unified and permanent body, congressional oversight hasn’t lessened. Instead it has grown from 86 committees and subcommittees to 108. This overbearing web of oversight not only causes a tremendous drain of resources and strain on DHS’s workload, but it results in muddled and often contradictory congressional guidance.
In 2004, the 9/11 Commission first recognized this problem, calling for Congress to cut oversight and form “a single, principal point of oversight and review.” Last year, we at The Heritage Foundation released our own plan to consolidate homeland security. In it we call for streamlining congressional oversight over DHS into only six committees—three each in the House and the Senate. Adding in seven subcommittees to each of the two newly created homeland security committees, our plan would reduce the sprawling system of congressional oversight from 108 committees and subcommittees to a mere 20.
How many more years do we need to wait? It’s time that Congress stop ignoring the problem and give credence to the idea of reform.
Author Jessica Zuckerman wrote this for Heritage.org