WASHINGTON – If congressional oversight is a good thing, then the Homeland Security Department may be suffering from too much of a good thing.
The department, cobbled together quickly out of 22 other agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, answers to 108 congressional committees, subcommittees, caucuses and the like, about four times as many as the departments of State and Justice combined.
Officials and staff spent about 66 work years responding to questions from Congress in 2009 alone. That same year, Homeland Security officials say they answered 11,680 letters, gave 2,058 briefings and sent 232 witnesses to 166 hearings. All this at a cost to taxpayers of about $10 million.
"There's no good reason," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "It's disgraceful." His committee would become the primary House oversight panel were the situation to change.
And while many in Congress and at the department agree, there doesn't seem to be an appetite to do anything about it.
The department was created to focus efforts on keeping the country secure under the direction of one Cabinet-level leader, sharing resources, goals and an overall mission. But what decision makers didn't take into account was the volume of oversight from Capitol Hill that would come with realigning 22 agencies into one massive department.
The 9/11 Commission, in its 2004 report, concluded that Congress should cut oversight from the then-88 committees and subcommittees to "a single, principal point of oversight and review." Instead, another 20 groups have been added to the number overseeing the department.
In a 2010 letter to King responding to questions about the oversight, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote that the volume of oversight often meant department officials and staff were "spending more time responding to congressional requests and requirements than executing their mandated homeland security responsibilities."
Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff wrote to King in 2007 that responding to countless congressional panels required "a very significant amount of DHS senior leadership time, which must be balanced with meeting operational mission demands."
King said it's clear to him that there is simply too much oversight. "It definitely takes away from the job they should be doing, and that's protecting the country," he said.
But lawmakers whose turf might be threatened by consolidating oversight defend the status quo.
Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees part of Homeland Security, said Congress intended a "purposeful redundancy" when it created the department.
"Many of our immigration policies are enforced outside of the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security by federal agencies, including the Justice and State departments," Smith said. "Just as multiple agencies are involved in the enforcement of our immigration laws and the security of our border, multiple congressional committees are involved in overseeing the government's efforts to keep our country safe."
But King and others say there are too many powerful committees that claim jurisdiction and no one is willing to cede control.
"I think it's because of turf battles within the Congress," said Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who is on King's committee. "We complain about how the executive branch has all these turf battles, and then you've got those same battles in the Congress."
Former committee chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said there is widespread agreement that DHS has too much oversight but little enthusiasm to change the situation.
"When you talk to think tanks, people who have looked at this situation, almost to the organization and the individual they say jurisdiction should be vested in one committee, just like you do it with other departments," Thompson said. "I tried for four years when I was chairman with very little success."
Chertoff, who left DHS in 2009, said he's never objected to congressional oversight. But the disparate nature of committees and subcommittees that claim jurisdiction — everything from the Financial Services and Oversight and Government Reform committees in the House to the Agriculture, Nutrition, Forestry and Environmental and Public Works committees in the Senate — can pull department priorities in different directions.
Without a principal oversight committee, the department gets "inconsistent guidance and different interpretations for how homeland security programs should be implemented and improved," Chertoff said. That, he added, hurts its ability to protect the country.