The House of Representatives yesterday held the first of more than 15 hearings before a half-dozen committees to discuss the recommendations of the September 11 commission.
But in this rush to debate the findings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, congressional leaders have demonstrated the truth of at least one of them: There are too many committees with jurisdiction over the nation’s counterterrorism agencies.
President Bush pointed out Monday that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and his senior officials testified at least 148 times before the 88 congressional committees and subcommittees that have jurisdiction over their activities in the nine months of 2003 that the department was in existence.
“It seems to me,” said the president, “that it’s one thing to testify and for there to be oversight; it’s another to make sure that the people who are engaged in protecting America don’t spend all their time testifying.”
Congressional oversight of counterterrorism policy is a hodgepodge of conflicting and overlapping jurisdiction. Critics say it distracts some officials from their primary mission and — worse — leaves others with a budgetary and legislative back door through which they can escape effective scrutiny and spending control.
The Department of Homeland Security probably has the worst of it. In the Senate, its work is overseen by the Governmental Affairs Committee. The House Select Committee on Homeland Security is scheduled to be dissolved at the end of the current session unless the rules are changed to make it permanent.
In both chambers, the lead oversight committees share jurisdiction with the so-called legacy panels, which were responsible for overseeing the 22 agencies that were merged to create the department.
Homeland Security officials say they have testified 142 times in seven months this year, nearly matching last year’s figure.
The workload occasioned by such a heavy schedule is “inordinate,” said the department’s second in command, Adm. James Loy.
“It’s not just the preparation,” he said last week, “though there are hours and hours of that. It’s the administrative aftermath. There’s a long trail of questions for the record following every hearing — and this for a department that’s literally only just getting its feet on the ground.”
Homeland Security officials had more than 800 briefings for members of Congress and their staffs last year, and more than 1,000 so far this year. The department’s legislative affairs staff members have answered more than 4,000 written inquiries.
Sometimes, Adm. Loy said, it is challenging “to carve out time to get the mission done.”
Relations between the oversight committees and the department are not always friendly.
Indeed, in a gesture that might be described as petulant, the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee zeroed out the budget for the department’s Legislative Affairs Office. If the bill is passed in that form, officials will have to get reprogramming authority to pay the people whose job it is to answer congressional inquiries.