- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday made changes in its rules for the coming session of Congress, establishing one permanent committee to oversee the Department of Homeland Security.

But within hours of the vote, lawmakers were locked in meetings with congressional officials, haggling over the details of the new committee’s jurisdiction, and critics derided the new arrangement as a mess.

“It is the clear will and mandate of this Congress that there should be a single body to oversee the entire department,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, who called the change “historic.”

The temporary Homeland Security Committee set up by lawmakers in the last session shared its jurisdiction with many other panels — a legacy of the department’s origin as almost two dozen separate federal agencies.

The arrangement frustrated lawmakers and department officials, and was criticized by the September 11 commission, which said a single committee was essential to the nation’s security.

But the rules package that passed by a 220-195 party-line vote yesterday leaves significant gray areas in the scope of the committee’s authority.

Facing down a threatened rebellion from powerful committee chairmen opposed to the changes, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, brokered a deal that some say leaves the new committee’s jurisdiction with too many fuzzy edges.

For instance, according to a document produced by the House leadership to accompany the rules package, the committee’s jurisdiction over first responders applies “only as they relate to acts of terrorism.”

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat and an advocate of the September 11 commission reforms, said: “Homeland security oversight is still a confusing mess.”

Even some supporters of the new arrangements said it represented only “a step” toward fulfilling Congress’ “constitutional responsibility” to oversee the nation’s national security agencies.

“There is a lot of uncertainty there,” agreed Mr. Weldon.

Other gray areas under discussion include the relationship between the authorities of the Homeland Security Committee over transportation security, and those of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee over safety.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff said that the close relationship between safety and security kept their “foot in the door” of the department.

Mr. Weldon said the “convoluted process” involved in such arrangements would make it more difficult to legislate for a better national response to terror attacks and other disasters.

“Both the major grant packages for first responders that I have got through in the last four years … had to [become law] as amendments to the defense appropriations bill,” he said.

Asked whether he would expect a more straightforward passage for such legislation under the new structure, Mr. Weldon said: “That is exactly the question.”



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