Opinion

Times Square bomb: Will Congress finally fix homeland security oversight?

The Times Square bomb is just the latest of more than 30 terrorist plots against the US since 9/11. Yet Congress still operates the way it did on Sept. 10, 2001.

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A bomb in Times Square? Terrorists trying to kill us?

That isn’t news. In fact, there have been at least 30 known terrorist plots against the United States since 9/11. New York City has been a target eight of those times.

So if terrorists keep trying to attack us, why is Congress still operating the same way it did on Sept. 10, 2001?

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One of the 41 key recommendations of the 9/11 commission was to streamline congressional oversight of homeland security. The commission recognized that too many layers of bureaucracy in the halls of Congress would impede the development of smart security policies.

You would think Congress would embrace such a simple task wholeheartedly. In fact, many members have spoken out about the need to reform the oversight system. Both Democrats and Republicans have pushed for change. Everyone seems to know it’s a problem, but neither party’s leadership has taken any steps to solve it.

In fact, instead of decreasing the number of committees, subcommittees, and commissions with these powers, the number has actually increased to 108 entities with oversight over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Department officials, frustrated with the process, have often complained about the oversight structure in terms of workload, emphasizing the number of hours spent responding to congressional inquiries, phone calls, and e-mails – hours they say could be spent making DHS a better department.

While this is certainly a valid criticism, the problem is much bigger. The chaotic oversight structure has lead to conflicting priorities – with one committee telling DHS to go in one direction, and another committee recommending an entirely different course.

For example, when it comes to whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be within the Department of Homeland Security or be elevated to a cabinet-level agency, the House Homeland Security Committee has supported keeping FEMA in the department, while House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has pushed for it to be taken out. Such turmoil affects the morale of the department. But it also diminishes the likelihood that truly necessary reforms at DHS will receive enough attention.

What’s worse is that the competition among these many committees, subcommittees, and commissions has produced “overkill” legislation that meets political needs but doesn’t make Americans safer. Some of these bills have become law, and DHS is now required to execute them.

Take the 100 percent scanning mandate for maritime security, which requires all cargo containers entering the US to be scanned for radioactive material by 2012. Such a move actually contradicts previously established policies by the department to scan cargo on the basis of risk – a model that repeatedly proved successful. Yet DHS now has to spend time and money to make the mandate work despite the fact it won’t make us safer against terrorism and will likely result in significant supply chains delays – a cost that will be passed along to consumers.

It isn’t surprising that, when pushed to reform the structure and consolidate power to solve these problems, most members just aren’t willing to yield their jurisdiction. Security has proven to be a reliable issue at the ballot box, and every member wants to be able to say he or she did something to help the process.

Yet the 9/11 commission was right. Oversight, which could be used in a perfectly legitimate way to ensure DHS is doing its job, has now produced a system that is more about politics than security. While there will be many lessons learned in the aftermath of the Times Square near-bombing, Congress has yet to learn Lesson No. 1.

Jena Baker McNeill is a homeland security policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

Related:

Where do reforms urged by 9/11 commission stand?

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