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Event Recap

January 8, 2021

Future of DHS Project examines the role of Congressional oversight in department reform

By Julia Siegel

On Thursday, December 17, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) hosted a panel of former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials to discuss why now is the time to streamline congressional oversight of DHS. Furthering Forward Defense’s mission to craft sustainable, nonpartisan strategies that meet the complex security challenges of today and tomorrow, this event explored how fragmented congressional oversight impacts DHS and charted a path forward.

This event signified the next chapter of Forward Defense’s Future of DHS Project, which released Key Findings and Recommendations and a full report to inform the 2021 DHS leadership team on how to address key challenges faced by the department earlier this year. Forward Defense will also release Key Findings and Recommendations outlining actions for Congress to take in supporting DHS following Thursday’s event.

Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson launched the event, reflecting on the Future of DHS project as one with an “intimidating scope” but one of the “most cogent roadmaps” ever seen at the Council. Highlighting the opportunity to consolidate oversight when the 117th Congress convenes in January, he introduced the leading voice on Congressional reform of DHS, Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security Bennie G. Thompson.

Chairman Thompson shared his experience with and the path forward for DHS with Forward Defense Nonresident Senior Fellow and Future of DHS Project Director Tom Warrick. He characterized the DHS components as “a hybrid group that has never been given a real home,” with overlapping congressional jurisdictions and competing committee interests hampering the ability of DHS to achieve its mission. Chairman Thompson stated that the Committee on Homeland Security, which currently does not receive every homeland security bill that passes through Congress, should be given primary referral for all homeland security-related activity. According to Chairman Thompson, ideas on homeland security reform are generally bipartisan as “the core mission of homeland security has no political boundaries attached.” In his most recent homeland security bill, Chairman Thompson included provisions to create a senior-level law enforcement official in the department, improve employee morale, and minimize overutilization of acting secretaries, recommendations which accord with the Future of DHS Project recommendations. Chairman Thompson thanked Mr. Warrick for pulling together distinguished minds to investigate the future of DHS, stating that “[the Atlantic Council’s] leadership is absolutely important if [DHS reform is] to get over the finish line.”

Mr. Warrick then transitioned to a larger discussion featuring a panel of distinguished former officials. All panelists expressed that consolidating Congressional oversight of DHS was long overdue. Sharing his experience on the 9/11 Commission, Atlantic Council Board Director Tom Eldridge remembered that even in 2002 the fragmented oversight of DHS, then divided over eighty-eight committees and subcommittees, was the largest obstacle to DHS development. Similarly, former DHS Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Francis Taylor, also present when DHS was established, understood that Congress purposefully kept the twenty-two component jurisdictions in their original committees to weaken the power of the secretary of homeland security.

The issue of oversight remains pressing almost twenty years later, as advocates continue to push for streamlining the authorization of DHS. CNAS Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow and General Counsel Carrie Cordero used the Department of Defense to illustrate the incongruity in departmental jurisdiction. The Department of Defense works with a larger budget and oversees more personnel than DHS, yet it passes a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) annually, which is a vehicle for important cybersecurity legislation related to homeland security. Still, DHS remains without effective congressional authorization. Former General Counsel for the House Committee on Homeland Security Joan O’Hara agreed with Ms. Cordero, viewing an authorization bill as a necessary step for DHS to “operate as a complete department and not a collection of components.” According to Ms. O’Hara, members of Congress resoundingly agree that consolidation is necessary, though many representatives remain reticent to give up any power to shape policy. Nevertheless, staffs can collaborate to ensure that diverse interests are represented at DHS, as members do with the Department of Defense, which houses issues with broad constituent interest.

Throughout the conversation, the panelists represented a variety of ideas on ways in which distinctive components of DHS could improve. Security and International Policy Managing Director at the Center for American Progress Katrina Mulligan noted that, despite the diversity of perspectives regarding what DHS should prioritize, all panelists agreed that streamlining congressional oversight of the department was essential in meeting challenges to national security in the twenty-first century. Mr. Warrick concurred, stating that “now is the time when Congress should give itself … unity of view and purpose in consolidating congressional oversight jurisdiction of DHS.”

 You can re-watch “The Future of DHS Project: Time to reform Congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security” here or below. To learn the latest on the Future of DHS, visit the project website here. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

Julia Siegel is an intern for Forward Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Forward Defense

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.

Image: Source: US Department of Homeland Security Flickr