Hamilton Urges House to Form Permanent Standing Homeland Security Committee
Testimony of the Honorable Lee H. Hamilton
Before the Select Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Rules
September 9, 2003
Chairman Diaz-Balart, Ranking Member Slaughter, thank you for giving me this opportunity to testify before you today on homeland security and committee organization in the House of Representatives.
Importance of Issue
Let me begin by emphasizing the importance of the issue that you are considering.
Our government has no greater responsibility than protecting the safety and security of the American people and the American homeland. This became tragically clear on September 11, 2001, and the Congress and the executive branch appropriately responded by creating the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – a reorganization of the federal government that surpasses in size, scope and significance any governmental reorganization in our nation’s history.
But reform does not end with the creation of DHS. Implementing a consolidation of 22 agencies and nearly 170,000 employees is an immensely difficult and complex challenge that will take years, if not decades, to accomplish. And this consolidation must take place in the context of the war on terror and unprecedented threats to our homeland.
The question before you is how Congress can make the implementation of this policy a success. This is not merely about moving around boxes on an organizational chart – this is about how best to provide security for the American people.
Importance of Oversight
Oversight of the executive branch is an enormously important function of the Congress. Indeed, oversight is at the core of good government in this country.
Congress must do more than write laws – it must make sure the executive branch carries out those laws the way Congress intended; it must constructively aid in the implementation of policy; and it must ensure that the American peoples’ voices are heard.
The Department of Homeland Security will not succeed without sustained, constructive, comprehensive, vigorous and informed Congressional oversight.
The Homeland Security Act states that it is “the sense of Congress that each House of Congress should review its committee structure in light of the reorganization of responsibilities within the executive branch.” I am pleased that the 108th Congress commenced this process by creating this Select Committee on Homeland Security. Speaker Hastert and Minority Leader Pelosi should be commended, as should Chairman Cox and Ranking Member Turner, who have ably led the Select Committee.
The question now is what to do with the Committee. As I see it, there are four potential courses of action:
-- 1) maintain oversight and jurisdiction of homeland security within the existing committee structure;
-- 2) continue a Select Committee on Homeland Security on an ad hoc basis until it is no longer necessary;
-- 3) create a Permanent Select Committee similar to the Intelligence Committee;
-- or 4) create a Permanent Standing Committee on Homeland Security.
In going forward, there are key questions that should be answered. What Congressional action is the best response to the threat of terrorism? What organization will allow Congress to exercise oversight in the most efficient and effective manner? What organization will best aid the executive branch in the implementation of policy? And what is in the best interests of the American people and American national security?
I believe that all of these questions point decisively to the need for a Standing Committee on Homeland Security.
The Benefits of a Permanent Standing Committee
The issue of homeland security is not temporary. The threat of terrorism is long-term, as are the related challenges that will confront our government. Thus necessary oversight cannot be supplied on an interim basis, nor can it be effectively and efficiently disbursed among the current 13 full committees and 60 subcommittees in the House.
The creation of a Permanent Standing Committee on Homeland Security with primary legislative and oversight jurisdiction would enable the Congress to strengthen its organizational response to terrorism and enhance national security in several tangible ways:
1) Organization that Reflects the Mission
First, Congress needs to reorient its own culture to suit the mission of homeland security.
DHS was created so that 22 agencies of the federal government would reorient their purpose and organization towards the mission of protecting the homeland. DHS is intended to embody a common mission and culture – indeed, the vital goal of implementation is to overcome bureaucratic resistance to forging that common culture.
Congressional oversight should both initiate and reflect this intended change. What kind of message would Congress send if it insists on vast changes in the executive branch and then resists the very cultural change that it is asking of the executive branch? How do 20th century oversight arrangements suit the 21st century mission that we are asking these agencies to carry out?
Congress can send a clear message on behalf of action and reform to both DHS and the American people through the creation of a Standing Committee on Homeland Security.
2) Real Congressional expertise on Homeland Security
Second, Congress needs to develop in depth, sustained expertise on the issue of homeland security. The way to advance that expertise within the Congress is with a permanent – not a temporary – committee.
There is no substitute for acquired, focused expertise in oversight. One of the vital benefits of the Committee system is that it enables Members and staff to develop – over time – substantial expertise on an issue. This expertise will be lacking if homeland security is one of only several issues before a Committee, or if a Committee on Homeland Security lacks primary legislative and oversight jurisdiction.
I am sure that all of the Members of the Select Committee know more about homeland security than they did at the time of their assignment to the Committee. This expertise must be cultivated and deepened. Only a Permanent Standing Committee will enable Members to become adequately versed in homeland security so that they can ask hard questions and provide informed oversight.
3) Simplify Process of Oversight
Third, Congress needs to simplify the process of oversight.
Overlapping jurisdiction sows confusion in the executive branch. If there is no Standing Committee on Homeland Security, then DHS officials will spend excessive time testifying in front of multiple committees with oversight and jurisdictional responsibilities.
Indeed, this has already been the case. DHS officials have been pulled in different directions, and have not testified in front of the Select Committee with the same focus that they would if it had primary legislative and oversight jurisdiction.
Overlapping jurisdiction saps time that DHS officials need to do the important work of implementing DHS’s goals, and denies them the benefit of informed Congressional consultation. It will greatly help and simplify the enormous tasks confronting the Secretary of Homeland Security if he understands clearly the key members of Congress with whom he must consult and work. Congress can make a significant contribution to the implementation of DHS and its policies by simplifying this overlapping committee structure.
4) Set Priorities and Streamline Budgeting
Fourth, Congress needs a Committee that can assist DHS in setting priorities and streamlining the budget for homeland security.
The primary difficulty of protecting the homeland is setting priorities. There are an infinite number of targets, a wide array of terrorist methods, and a seemingly endless list of areas and entities that demand resources. Congress can help DHS set clear priorities so that the right resources are channeled to the right people at the right time to get the job done.
Multiple committees with jurisdiction and oversight are likely to have different – even conflicting – priorities for DHS agencies. This will complicate an already complicated task. Creating a single committee will have the opposite effect, enabling the House to convey clear, focused priorities for homeland security.
Just as DHS needs focused priorities, homeland security demands a streamlined budgeting process. A fragmented committee structure lends itself to poorly defined priorities and poorly allocated resources. Consolidating the authorization of expenditures for emergency-responders within a Standing Committee will ensure that appropriations are more suited to the prioritized demands of homeland security.
Logic of a Standing Committee
Each of these arguments points to the basic logic of creating a Standing Committee on Homeland Security: homeland security is a matter of the utmost seriousness; homeland security is a long-term issue; homeland security demands that government navigate a complex maze of policy choices in the most efficient manner possible.
Only a Standing Committee on Homeland Security can set a road map for negotiating that maze, and provide the oversight that is essential to effective implementation.
Difficulties of Implementing a Standing Committee
I recognize that implementing a Standing Committee will be extremely difficult. During my thirty-four years in the Congress, I served on and Chaired Standing, Select, and Permanent Select Committees, and fully understand the sensitivities involved with any reorganization of the committee structure.
To be blunt, it is an issue of power. Authorizing committees are endowed with power – powers of oversight, investigation and authorization – and standing committees are and will be reluctant to cede these powers to a new committee.
But should the difficulties associated with change prevent Congress from doing what is best to protect the American people?
In this new era of national security a new focus of American governance is required. Business as usual is not acceptable. Confronting new and urgent problems with old organizational structures is also not acceptable. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security reflects that era, and so should the Committee structure of the most representative institution of our government. At the core of this issue is whether Congress will adjust to twenty-first century challenges, or whether it will protect twentieth century ways of doing business.
That said, I believe change can and should be implemented with due respect for the responsibilities of other Committees. Old missions of DHS agencies can remain under previous oversight arrangements.
Each DHS agency has responsibilities that are directly relevant to homeland security and should be under the oversight and jurisdiction of a Committee on Homeland Security. But they also have responsibilities that are not primarily geared towards homeland security, and can remain under current oversight and jurisdictional arrangements.
For instance, some responsibilities of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would remain under the oversight of the Committee on Agriculture; some responsibilities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service would remain under the oversight of the Committee on the Judiciary.
Simply put, a new committee will not assume oversight and jurisdiction of areas not related to homeland security. Other committees will thus not cede all of their powers of oversight and jurisdiction over DHS agencies to a Standing Committee on Homeland Security.
Conclusion – Hard Choices and the Necessity of Congressional Leadership
I served on the Commission on National Security in the 21st Century – better known as the Hart-Rudman Commission. We determined that the U.S. would likely suffer a major terrorist attack on its soil, and recommended the creation of a cabinet-level department devoted to Homeland Security.
Among our other determinations was the recognition that Congress often has an easier time reforming the executive branch than it does reforming itself. Congress has now reformed the executive branch through the Homeland Security Act and the creation of DHS. Congress must now do the difficult work of reforming itself to adequately respond to the threat of terrorism, and ensure that it can carry out vigorous and informed oversight.
You know better than anyone how hard it is to reform committee jurisdictions in the Congress. The reason for the difficulty is simple – reform means a reallocation of power. Ultimately, reform will only take place with the support of the Congressional leadership. You have to be convinced that change is necessary and so must the Congressional leadership of both parties. The leadership must make the case to Members and demonstrate the political will necessary to overcome challenges and obstacles.
The important work of your subcommittee is to evaluate the case for reform, to render informed judgments on the issue, then to lay before your colleagues a strong and compelling argument for change. If you do, the leadership’s task will be easier.
There are hard jurisdictional choices to make. It may seem that the difficulties involved with creating a Standing Committee on Homeland Security overwhelm the benefits of change. This is not the case.
A new era requires you to think anew. Hard times demand hard choices. The Congress should not make those choices based on seeking the easier course of action. Congress should make those choices based on a determination of what measures will permit the Congress to fulfill its obligation to protect the American people.
Thank you for your attention. I shall be pleased, Mr. Chairman, to answer any questions that you and members of the Committee may have.