Ideas. Action. Results.

Lee H. Hamilton & Thomas H. Kean: It’s Time for Congress to Lead on Homeland Security


Thursday, October 19, 2017

One of the most important post-9/11 reforms that has helped keep our nation safe from mass-casualty terrorist attacks was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This year, the Senate has an opportunity to help DHS better realize its mission by joining the House in reauthorizing the department for the first time since its creation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

To execute its complex mission well, DHS needs clear, coherent guidance and strong oversight from Congress. 

The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created DHS, brought together 22 previously separate agencies with 179,000 employees. DHS inherited customs and border security from the Justice and Treasury Departments, aviation security from the FAA, and maritime and port security from the Department of Transportation, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those missions alone would be a challenge for any agency—but DHS is also responsible for government and private sector cybersecurity, and has important intelligence and counterterrorism duties as well. Knitting DHS’s many disparate components together into a coherent agency with a shared culture and managing the now 240,000-person workforce (all while handling crises ranging from surges of unaccompanied minors at the border, to hurricanes, to terrorist plots against aviation, to regular cyberattacks) is a fearsome management challenge.

To execute its complex mission well, DHS needs clear, coherent guidance and strong oversight from Congress. Unfortunately, Congress did not pair its historic post-9/11 reforms in the executive branch with equally deep reforms to its committee structures in the House and Senate. In the 9/11 Commission Report, we recommended that Congress “create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security.” Logically, that “principal point” should be the Homeland Security Committee in the House and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in the Senate. Unfortunately, those two committees continue to share jurisdiction over DHS with an astonishing 92 other other committees and subcommittees, because committees that oversaw the agencies folded into DHS were reluctant to give up their jurisdiction over those functions.