Turf Battles Brewing Over New Homeland Security Department

The turf battles are already brewing on Capitol Hill over who will oversee the new Department of Homeland Security, still in its infancy.

At issue is whether oversight should be spread out among the estimated 60 to 88 Senate and House panels that currently have their fingers in homeland security issues or condensed into a comprehensive security panel.

However it's done, experts agree that jurisdictional battles in Congress are generally nasty fights.

"If Congress wants to show leadership on this issue, they're going to have to make some sacrifices," said Michael Scardaville, a homeland security analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "It's pretty clear that many members of Congress don't want to do this for precisely that purpose."

On the Senate side, the first order of business will be to decide which committee holds the confirmation hearing for Secretary-designate Tom Ridge.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversaw the creation of the department in that chamber, typically would handle this. But other committees, such as Armed Services, also want a say, since the agency crosses over issues.

Incoming Governmental Affairs Committee chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, is likely to lobby for DHS oversight.

Over on the House side, lawmakers' primary objective is to decide how to go about reorganizing its committees. Normally, the House Rules Committee would have a say in this matter, but the House Government Reform Committee also claims some jurisdiction. How much oversight the Government Reform panel wins depends on the new chairman's zeal. Current chairman Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., is term-limited and can't continue as its head.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who helped Republicans gain seats in the House this year as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who has the most seniority on the committee, are both contenders.

One controversial issue is whether a whole new committee should be established to oversee DHS.

Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., has been a vocal advocate of creating a House Committee on Homeland Security. He convinced House Republicans in September to pass a nonbonding resolution supporting a new panel.

"Congress is doing absolutely nothing to change the way we do business, which doesn't do a whole lot for the streamlining process," said Weldon spokesman Bud DeFlaviis.

DeFlaviis said the House leadership team is "weighing their options" and looking into whether to more formally support a whole new committee. "They seem very open-minded about it," he said.

Chances may be good at the prospects of a new committee.

"It looks like they're going to create one authorizing committee for this," said Peter Kant, vice president for government affairs for the Washington-based Jefferson Consulting. "That's sort of the drumbeat right now."

Another battle will be who chairs a new committee.

On the House side, GOP leaders handpicked members of a special homeland security panel to shepherd the bill through Congress.

Among Hill denizens and lobbying circles, Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was mentioned as a possible chairman. Portman was on the steering committee that guided the bill to passage.  Chances are the new chair will be someone who was a member of that group.

Kant said the staff of the steering committee hopes lawmakers decide by mid-January on who will be their new boss.

Finally, lawmakers are at odds about funding the new agency and are debating creating a new appropriations subcommittee to join the 13 subcommittees already in existence in both chambers.

"As far as appropriations goes, this fight is huge … if you have control over the money – that's a big deal," Kant said.

On Friday, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., suggested that scandalized Senate Republican leader Trent Lott be given a "soft landing" after his resignation from the leadership and perhaps be assigned to sort out how to deal with that issue.

"We are going to have to find out how we are going to set up the appropriations for the new committees we're going to have up here in order to protect our homeland. That's not been decided up here how that's going to be done," Domenici said.

The Appropriations subcommittees are currently trying to deal with passing the remaining spending bills Congress left languishing during the 107th Congress before it tackles DHS, said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield.

But "the last thing that many of the committee members think we need is another subcommittee," Scofield said. "Why would we want to create one more bill that we need to move when we weren't so successful this year on moving the 13?"

Scofield said talks on the issue will resume in January and some decision will need to be made before President Bush presents his fiscal 2004 budget to Congress in February.

Regardless of the decisions made, experts say lawmakers have to commit themselves to a long-term, effective process that keeps the nation's security – and not political turf battles – at the top of their priority list.

"This isn't a fly-by-night operation. It's going to be something we have to commit resources to for in the foreseeable future," Scardaville said. "Even if we have Usama bin Laden's head on a pike tomorrow, people are going to learn from Sept. 11."