February 22, 2017

The Move to Authorize DHS… It’s Time

Pamela Turner

This January, House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-TX), along with the Chairmen of seven other House Committees that share homeland jurisdiction, signed a memorandum of understanding which could improve chances for Congressional approval of the first-ever department-wide authorization bill for the Department of Homeland Security. In essence, the 10-point agreement directs the various committees to prioritize the authorization of DHS components in their jurisdiction and work with the Homeland Security which will write the final text for House consideration.

In the wake of 9/11, Congress passed legislation to create a specific department responsible for detection, prevention, response and recovery from attacks against the homeland, whether man-made or acts of nature. The 22 existing agencies combined in DHS brought with them their own discrete missions, cultures, budgets and their own legacy jurisdictions among a wide range of Congressional committees and subcommittees. Every Secretary of DHS, as well as the leadership of both House and Senate Homeland Committees, have expressed frustration that this diffuse process has made it difficult to enact a single comprehensive DHS Authorization bill, and does little to enhance a sense of unity and common purpose at the Department.

DHS responsibilities cover a wide range of critical functions including anti-terrorism efforts, cybersecurity, infrastructure protection, border, port and transportation security, immigration and customs enforcement, as well the Coast Guard and Secret Service. While much of DHS work is operational, they play a growing role in high-profile policy issues such as immigration, border protection and cybersecurity.  Managing this diverse portfolio, as well as continuing to unify and streamline the Department, presents considerable challenges.

Consider as well the robust homeland agenda that House and Senate committees have planned this year including reviewing the DHS structure, efforts to secure the border and improve immigration enforcement, the myriad of cybersecurity issues (including who has responsibility for what among the various Executive agencies), increasing security for critical infrastructure, implementation of CISA (information sharing), encryption, increased R&D as well as technology for improved screening technology, and increasing the DHS cyber workforce.  Also, members may look at increased responsibilities for TSA and continued efforts to detect WMDs.

Clearly, Congress has both the right and the responsibility to exercise oversight of DHS to ensure that the Department is fulfilling its missions as directed by law and spending the taxpayers’ dollars appropriately.  And now it is time for Congress to give DHS its own Authorization bill.  The House plan for achieving this goal will provide three important benefits:

  1. It will provide DHS with clear, consistent and comprehensive guidance.
  2. All the DHS jurisdictional committees will be heard and have input in formulating a unified bill.
  3. It will provide more clarity regarding DHS needs and direction to those who work with the Department, including other federal agencies, state and local governments, and the various private sector contractors, vendors, and other entities.

As Secretary Kelly and his team take on the direction of DHS and manage its critical policy and operational responsibilities, they could benefit greatly from having the clarity and direction of an authorization bill.  While it remains unclear at this point what process the Senate will follow, the House has taken a good step forward here and hopefully Congress will follow through with action this year.  It’s time.