Can Congress come together to unify DHS?

DHS officials said the department needs congressional help to increase teamwork among components as disparate as the Secret Service and FEMA.

The next stop in the Homeland Security Department’s campaign to harmonize its 22 agencies: Capitol Hill.

DHS officials said the department needs Congress’ help to increase teamwork among components as disparate as the Secret Service and FEMA.

“We have 22 components — different traditions, different cultures — but overarching systems and processes could be put in place to create a more efficient, effective Department of Homeland Security,” said Tia Johnson on her first day as DHS’ assistant secretary for legislative affairs. “We’re looking to have some of that enacted in the legislation to memorialize that and to help with our organization and structure.”

In April 2014, Secretary Jeh Johnson launched a “Unity of Effort” campaign to better coordinate agencies involved in singular efforts, like safeguarding the country’s Southwest border. The unity initiative is also meant to boost employees’ morale and create a single approach to certain underlying operations, like financial management. But current law limits how far the secretary can take the reorganization, Tia Johnson said. She spoke at a legal forum in Washington sponsored by the American Bar Association.

Congress could help by passing legislation modeled on the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, she added. That law brought the military services together to create today’s unified Defense Department.

House panel will consider DHS reauthorization in September

DHS’ unity campaign has at least one supporter in Congress. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, aims to mark up a bill to reauthorize the department as soon as Congress returns to Washington in September, said his general counsel, Joan O’Hara. But she acknowledged that passing the legislation would require Congress’ own unity-of-effort campaign.

DHS answers to many masters on Capitol Hill now. More than 100 committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over the department.  DHS briefed congressional offices 1,742 times in 2014, she said.

“This demands time, resources and energy. Certainly, it has been argued that it takes away from the department’s implementing the mission,” she said.

Future legislation may aim to whittle down the number of congressional committees that oversee DHS. But for now, the reauthorization bill will have to go through many hands.

“We’ve been speaking with House leadership about rethinking that jurisdiction, even though it would be politically difficult,” O’Hara said. “Regardless, the committee and Chairman McCaul are committed to getting a reauthorization done this year.”

The lack of action thus far has weakened the department, O’Hara said.

“Homeland security  is jeopardized in some respects when we can’t pass bills that are really necessary to help the department prioritize,” she said.

O’Hara drew parallels between the department, created in 2002, and teenagers awkwardly feeling their way to adulthood. DHS, with its various cultures, is trying to find its own identity. It needs a shot of confidence , she said.

The reauthorization would provide it by showing that Congress takes DHS seriously and puts it on par with other departments, O’Hara said. That might help it garner other agencies’ respect. In recent years, some agencies have balked when DHS attempted to scan their computer networks for cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The White House and Congress had to intervene.

A reauthorization would strengthen Congress’ hand, as well, she said. It would let lawmakers set the priorities for the department according to today’s needs, rather than those of 12 years ago.

“In failing to reauthorize the department, it’s difficult for us to give firm guidance. Everything is a very strong suggestion without legislation behind it,” O’Hara said. “When we’re failing to provide that guidance, we’re basically ceding our responsibility to the executive branch.”

DHS is not supposed to oversee itself, she said.

She said McCaul aims to have the bill on the floor of the House before Christmas.

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