Olive: Rogers Should Look to His Own House First

Posted December 17, 2010 at 2:54pm

In a recent Roll Call editorial, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) urged Members of Congress to “grab a shovel” and start digging the country out of an ever-growing $14 trillion debt.

Recall the old adage: If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

While the picks and shovels on Capitol Hill continue to bury the country in financial peril, the next chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is right: The U.S. budget is in trouble. But while Rogers champions his own attempts to reduce “bloated [Department of Homeland Security] policy shops and redundant public relations offices,” he does not turn those choice keywords — bloated and redundant — on Congress’ own spending, particularly its oversight of DHS.

There are somewhere between 88 and 108 Congressional committees and subcommittees with DHS oversight authority. I can think of no better place to cut spending than the inefficient, duplicative and overly complex manner in which Congress itself oversees the department.

Congress needs to implement the only remaining recommendation of the 9/11 commission left undone: Consolidate and refine DHS oversight. From a fiscal standpoint, it would contribute to Rogers’ goal of reducing the debt. In the aggregate, every question for the record, every duplicative report and every testimony repeated for multiple subcommittees costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Those policy and public relations offices with which he seems so concerned are, in part, necessary to respond to all of the duplicative work piled on the department by Members of Congress. Since Rogers will have a key role in determining the amount of spending by Members in the legislative branch, a great place to start cutting spending would be to eliminate funding for duplicative actions by Congress itself.

The need for reforming the labyrinth of Congressional DHS oversight is abundantly clear to most (without regard to political party), though Congress has yet to take action. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is expected to be chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the 112th Congress, has also called for reform of “wasteful spending.” While he is not alone in repeating this politically popular phrase, it rarely goes further than the lips of a politician in front of a microphone.

As an example, last week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a conference, titled “North American Competitiveness and the Global Supply Chain.” The closing address was given by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas). During his Q&A session, I asked Brady whether overlapping Congressional actions were interfering with getting a Customs and Border Protection re-authorization bill out of the House and why the remaining 9/11 commission recommendation had not been adopted.

In response, Brady said: “Just as we insist agencies coordinate better, cooperate better and shrink their different agencies into one more coordinated agency or effort, we have to look at ways to do that within Congress as well, because I think that the mass multijurisdictional nature of DHS really slows things down.”

Brady at least acknowledged the problem — something that makes his response refreshing, since the standard Congressional response over the past few years has been a deafening silence. But the question remains: Beyond a recognition that “multijurisdictional” oversight hinders rather than helps DHS efficiency, who in the new Congress will take lead on enacting the final recommendation of the 9/11 commission?

If there is reticence in Congress to streamlining oversight, it may be in part because consolidating oversight means some Members and committees will lose a measure of power, publicity and authority. But isn’t that one of the messages of the recent election? The American people want there to be less power and less dictatorial authority in Washington. Even worse, the mishmash of Congressional meddling is creating not only a problem of misspent fiscal resources, but it also challenges the ability of DHS to do its job.

How much more fully could DHS focus on its mandate of protecting the homeland if it was not jumping through Congressional oversight hoops or responding to competing committees with different constituencies and ideas which may or may not be in conflict with one another?

To be sure, streamlined oversight does not mean absence of oversight. It means smarter oversight — a conclusion the 9/11 commission reached nearly seven years ago.

It would seem to me, and I hope to the Members of the incoming 112th Congress, that such a threat to efficiency and such wasteful costs warrant a closer examination of their own practices. Rogers would have a lot more credibility on this issue, at least with me, if he were to start asking some tough questions of his House colleagues. It’s time to put down the shovel and take an axe to wasteful oversight.

David Olive is a principal at Catalyst Partners, a DC-based firm that specializes in homeland security issues.