Even though the House of Representatives has now passed an historic intelligence Reform bill, additional steps still need to be taken to make America more safe and secure in the future. Permanency is good news, but it’s not enough. This committee will need stature and clout — real jurisdiction — to provide rigorous oversight over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The September 11 commission’s critique of congressional oversight was nothing short of brutal. Prior to September 11, some 88 committee and subcommittees with jurisdiction over homeland security and competing issues did not see combating international terrorism as a top priority, according to the commission’s report. The report asserts that Congress was oriented toward domestic affairs, tended to defer to the White House and the Executive Branch on national security matters, made no effort to restructure its oversight to deal with post-Cold-War threats, and allowed the overall quality of oversight to deteriorate in recent years. None of its other key recommendations will succeed, the report concludes, without restructuring of congressional oversight. None of its other key recommendations will succeed, the report concludes, without restructuring congressional oversight. We may quibble about the quality of oversight prior to September 11, but there can be no argument about the need to restructure oversight today.
The president, the September 11 commission, former cabinet officers, Secretary Tom Ridge and virtually every think-tank right across the political spectrum strongly endorse a permanent Committee on Homeland Security. As former speakers of the house, we have long since joined the chorus. But establishing a new committee in a turf-conscious Congress is no easy feat. That’s why it has not been done in more than 40 years. Chairmen of standing committees regard their jurisdiction as legally owned property and defend it fiercely. The rules of the House strongly favor them and make change virtually impossible without the speaker’s decisive intervention. Mr. Hastert has clearly chosen to lead.
Mr. Hastert, to his great credit, had the vision in January 2003 to establish a temporary Select Committee on Homeland Security to serve as a focal point for oversight of the new department. The committee chairman, Chris Cox, and his Democratic counterpart, Jim Turner, made a strong effort in the ensuing 18 months to craft bipartisan legislation and to produce the department’s first-ever authorization bill. One of the select committee’s most noteworthy achievements was in demonstrating conclusively that, without real jurisdiction, it could not get the cooperation of the committees of jurisdiction to pass an authorization bill. Mr. Cox’s committee, as it turned out, was hopelessly crippled by the inclusion of the chairs of other committees bent on safeguarding their own homeland-security jurisdiction.
Mr. Hastert recently told the House Republican Conference that he would establish a permanent homeland-security committee in the 109th Congress, which opens in January. He could have let the Select Committee expire and opted for easier fixes, such as establishing a new subcommittee for an existing standing committee. This would have pleased a number of chairmen who strongly argued the case against permanency, but Mr. Hastert saw that the harder road for the House was the right one for a safer America. With the executive branch organized around DHS as the focus of the nation’s counter-terrorism efforts, it is difficult to imagine why the Congress would want to perpetuate a piecemeal approach to homeland-security issues, with literally dozens of committees and subcommittees engaged in oversight of DHS. We are encouraged that the speaker rejected this course.
The issue now — which always was the hardest of all — is what jurisdiction to confer on the new committee. This will be debated, but it’s certain that we will have made no progress if the new committee isn’t given broad legislative and oversight jurisdiction over DHS programs and activities, especially those focused on the department’s core counterterrorism mission. That will require carving out a portion of a few standing committees’ existing jurisdiction, certain to be a contentious task. In our view, however, it would be better to have no committee at all, than to create a hollow committee too weak to guide DHS effectively and that simply adds to the congressional bureaucracy. This job must be done right, or not at all.
The terrorist threat is as real today as it was on September 11 and won’t go away any time soon. Congress and the president created DHS, the third-largest department in the executive branch, to focus the government’s counterterrorist efforts. Congress must now align itself with the new structure of the executive branch, or it will lose influence and DHS will lose focused congressional guidance at the most vulnerable early stages of its development.
The next few weeks before January will be critical for the new committee. We know major headaches will come with the effort to realign jurisdiction, but we also know that future generations of Americans will recognize that Speaker Hastert and the 109th Congress courageously chose to do the right thing for America, not the easy thing for the House of Representatives. A strong, permanent Homeland Security Committee should be a centerpiece of the Hastert legacy.
Tom Foley is a former Democratic speaker of the House. Newt Gingrich is a former Republican speaker of the House.