- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Lawmakers from both parties say congressional oversight of the new Department of Homeland Security needs unifying and rationalizing because officials are spending so much time testifying on Capitol Hill that it is interfering with their work protecting the country against terrorism.

Both the Republican chairman and senior Democrat on the special House committee set up to oversee the Homeland Security Department have told United Press International that Congress needs to act to make their panel permanent.

“I accepted the job as chairman on the assurance of the speaker that he intended this committee to become permanent,” said Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican.

“There’s no doubt that the committee should be made permanent,” ranking member Jim Turner, Texas Democrat, said in an interview. “It’s going to be a real test of Congress’ ability to respond to the new threat.”

Their panel is scheduled to lapse next year at the conclusion of the 108th Congress, returning legislative and budget-setting authority to a patchwork of committees and subcommittees that previously oversaw the work of the 22 agencies that merged in January to form the department.

Making the Select Committee on Homeland Security permanent will require what one Republican leadership aide called “major rule changes, a major reorganization.”

“It’s a difficult task to reorganize Congress, because everybody likes to protect their turf,” Mr. Turner said.

And there are powerful opponents.

“I feel that it is better that the [existing] committees have that [oversight] responsibility,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the aviation subcommittee.

He said a victory in the war on terror might eliminate the need for the department. “Hopefully in five, six years it may not be necessary to have the department as currently constructed,” he said.

The role of each committee is laid out in the House’s rules. At the moment, the homeland security panel shares jurisdiction with the pre-existing patchwork of other committees.

It is this dual oversight that creates problems for the new department.

“The amount of correspondence and staff work required [by the overlapping oversight] is extremely overwhelming to a department that is just standing itself up and staffing its offices,” said one administration official who spoke on condition of not being named.

At least 88 committees and subcommittees in both chambers can claim some jurisdiction over the department. “There’s hardly a member of Congress who’s not on one of them,” says the administration official.

Homeland Security officials have testified 131 times before Congress since the department was created in January, figures provided by the department show.

The administration official said that each hearing required up to 24 staff-hours of work. “There are meetings with committee staff, the compilation of materials and the preparation of testimony.”

“The department has complained bitterly that they are required to come to the Hill to testify before far too many committees and subcommittees in both chambers,” said Mr. Cox.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security say they have received more than 1,600 letters from members of Congress requesting information, and have answered more than 1,000.

“The cost to our security of such diffused oversight and legislative authority in the Congress is significant,” said Mr. Cox. “This is impeding their getting the job done.”

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