Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a bi-partisan duo, recently authored a report to Congress criticizing the proliferation of committees directly engaged in oversight of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). At last report there were at least 92 committees with some degree of oversight responsibility which Kean and Hamilton contend are way too many.
I couldn't agree more. In their report, Kean and Hamilton lament the time and expense involved for the Secretary and other senior staff of DHS to prepare and deliver testimony to all of those oversight panels. I myself have run that gauntlet more times than I care to remember and it is exhausting. You have to summon a wide range of information from diverse sources, meld it all together into a coherent document and then field a wide gamut of questions ranging from the intricate to the absurd. I can only assume DHS has an entire section of professionals whose entire working lives are tied up in preparing this endless litany of testimony. It is an absurd waste of resources and does not contribute to national security.
Kean and Hamilton diplomatically omitted some of the more obvious reasons why the current system is not serving us well. I will lay it on the line. Far too much of the congressional oversight process is not about exercising oversight of federal laws and agencies but rather scoring political points to impress the folks at home. Too many members are less interested in improving national security than they are in coming up with sound bites for the TV cameras. Far too many oversight hearings degenerate into farce as committee members vie with each other to make the witnesses look bad to their own political advantage.
To some extent, this potential for mischief is built into the legislative process. Democracy has always been messy. I for one prefer the mess to the relative order of autocratic governments where the media is restricted and the legislators passive. It is the price we pay for freedom - one of many.
But the runaway oversight of DHS has gotten completely out of hand. There is simply no way the legions of members of 92 oversight committees can even pretend to exercise serious scrutiny of DHS. What we need is an orderly review of a department that has, in my view, been given far too much responsibility, and what we get is legislative chaos. In Congress, as in any organization, when too many people share responsibility no one can be held responsible.
Congress can clean this up. It should supervise DHS the same way it does the Pentagon with Armed Services Committee in the Senate and House plus defense panels in each chamber's appropriations committees. Congress should embrace the same system for oversight of DHS, and put an end to this proliferation of oversight that serves no one well.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.