- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Two years ago I wrote a column “Homeland on the Hill,” arguing that Congress should create a new permanent standing committee on Homeland Security. Doing so would be a political minefield, I warned, littered with jurisdictional and personality booby-traps. Since that time, a number of other advocates — including the September 11 commission, and last week the Center for Strategic and International Studies — have urged similar organizational reshaping. And while it’s unnecessary to repeat the imperatives for such a committee here, it’s beginning to look like backers of the new panel will prevail, a tribute to lawmakers like Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who would not let the idea drown, adroitly navigating through tricky jurisdictional shoals.

Republican leaders plan to formally present the proposal to the Republican Conference as one of the first items of business when the 109th Congress convenes on Jan. 3. The full House will vote on the plan the following day. And while last-minute glitches are always possible, it looks like the House will do what it hasn’t done since 1974 (when it formed the Budget Committee) and create a major new standing committee.

Forming new congressional panels is both rare and politically challenging. How the speaker won this victory is a case study in the kind of skillful behind-the-scenes legislative politics not taught in civics class.

The first lesson is patience. Major institutional changes rarely happen overnight in Congress; creating a standing Homeland Security Committee is no exception. Indeed, pushing for a permanent Homeland panel started at least two years ago at the beginning of the 108th when Congress passed H. Res. 5 on January 7, 2003, (the so-called “opening day” rules package adopted each new Congress that establishes the rules of the new session). H. Res. 5 gave the Speaker discretion to create a temporary Select Committee on Homeland Security and directed that panel to conduct a study about the need to form a new permanent standing committee.

But the Select Committee’s recommendations, issued this past September, ran into objections from other congressional panels concerned about the loss of jurisdiction; the reservations ran deep enough, in fact, to potentially sink the entire idea. An internal legislative arbiter was needed to lift to process above the narrower interests of both sides.

That’s when Mr. Hastert demonstrated the second lesson: Drive the process from the top. Backers of a permanent standing Homeland panel probably could not have prevailed on their own, principally because of jurisdictional concerns from other committees. Recognizing this, the speaker started by getting buy-in from his leadership team last month at the bicameral elected leadership retreat. With their full concurrence, and with the help of Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, Mr. Hastert began addressing jurisdictional concerns not only as an honest broker, but also as their trusted leader — two variables that provided him with valuable political capital in the negotiations. Members of Congress protect jurisdiction like their wallets, so calming their fears and accommodating their concerns was essential. That process is ongoing this week.

The speaker assured committee chairs this was not a raw power grab and that legitimate areas of primary and secondary jurisdiction would be protected. In the last several days, House staffs have been ironing out the final details of this plan to amend House Rule X, creating the new committee and enunciating its duties and clarifying jurisdiction.

The new committee will be significantly smaller — maybe 25 to 30 members — about half the size of the existing Select Committee, principally because it won’t include the chairman with jurisdiction over parts of the Homeland issue.

The new standing committee won’t solve all the problems of congressional oversight. “This is an evolutionary process,” a person familiar with the politics of congressional reorganization told me. “That’s the history of congressional reform. It’s not something just cooked up in the last couple of weeks.” Mr. Hastert recognizes this reality. Creating a new congressional committee, like authoring substantive legislation, progresses smoothest when patience, leadership support and compromise are all applied with a blend of sensitivity, boldness and suitable pressure. These steps have been wisely followed. By creating the standing committee, Congress maintains a balance of power with the executive branch on Homeland Security policy and the department receives clearer direction from lawmakers. Yet beyond constitutional equilibrium and clarity of legislative intent, this congressional reorganization has another laudable result: It keeps our families, cities and nation safer.

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