House leaders back plan to authorize DHS

The Department of Homeland Security hasn't been authorized by Congress since it was created in 2002, but a move to change that is gaining momentum in the House.

Wikimedia image: Michael Thomas McCaul, Sr. (U.S. Representative for Texas's 10th congressional district)

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) hopes a new deal inside the House of Representatives will help him lead a long-overdue authorization of the Department of Homeland

Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to provide a more coordinated defense of the U.S. against terrorist threats. But since its 2002 creation, which stitched together disparate parts of government like the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and immigration agencies, Congress hasn't been able to pass a bill authorizing the operations of the agency.

Part of the problem is the way DHS oversight functions in Congress. While the Homeland Security Committee is the primary authorizing agency, big chunks of oversight and authority are dispersed over multiple committees. Judiciary is responsible for immigration. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee oversees the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"With such a fractured jurisdiction, it's hard to get an authorizing bill for DHS completed," said Bradley Saull, a vice president at the Professional Services Council, a veteran of DHS and former staffer on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Without an authorizing bill, Saull said, "Congress doesn't have its say. It really concedes authority to the executive branch to determine what the priorities are. And the agency and components get conflicting guidance from various committees on what those priorities should look like."

The problem has long troubled Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the current chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. In the waning days of the last session of Congress, McCaul made it known that he wanted his committee to have the same encompassing level of oversight over DHS that the Armed Services Committee has over the military.

While McCaul didn't get the complete authority he sought in the recently passed House rules package, he did get the next best thing: a memorandum of understanding from eight committee chairmen with jurisdiction over some aspects of DHS agreeing to a 10-point plan to support the agency's reauthorization. The text of the memo was inserted into the Congressional Record at the behest of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The memo instructs committee chairmen to prioritize expired component reauthorizations and to collaborate on a process that allows for the Homeland Security Committee to take the lead on developing the text of a full agency reauthorization. There's even something of a forcing mechanism: Committee chairs are required to "prioritize the authorization of the Department and any unauthorized or expiring component in that committee’s authorization and oversight plan." Committee chairs are required to file such plans under the recently passed rules package.

"We are finally on a solid path to overhaul the Department of Homeland Security and make sure it stays ahead of threats to our country," McCaul said in a statement.

The problems with DHS authorization aren't simply the fault of the murky and conflicting oversight. The large, powerful component agencies under the DHS umbrella are still coming to grips with the DHS structure.

"They're way better than they were five years ago," said Rich Beutel, a former senior Hill staffer and currently principal of Cyrrus Analytics. "The money spent trying to bring cohesion to this group of highly important and robust components -- it's been an enormous task trying to get some structure."

Some changes in the offing could be a plan backed by McCaul and DHS leadership to rename, reorganize and elevate the National Protections and Programs Directorate as the Critical Infrastructure Protection Agency, to take the lead on domestic civilian cybersecurity and infrastructure security. McCaul backed a bill to do just that in the last session of Congress, but the legislation failed to move out of committee.

Another move could be to build on the widely supported administrative management reforms that fall under the heading of the DHS "unity of effort" program, designed to streamline procurement, technology, human resources and other common functions.

From the point of view of the IT community, an authorization of the full agency could give vendors a better view of what DHS wants to do.

"Clearly having a statutory authorization as a foundation for agency operations and agency structure adds clarity to the marketplace and provides contractors with a clear roadmap of how they want to engage," Beutel said.

Saull echoed that point, saying that authorization "provides government the structure and the direction from Congress that gives more certainty to the government contractor market about what government is supposed to achieve."

The Trump administration will likely play a big role in new legislation. President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on a plan of sweeping immigration reform, from a border wall to more deportations of undocumented residents accused of crimes and of travelers overstaying their visas. It's not likely that a DHS authorization package will consist only of administrative measures to improve management, streamline common functions and build out cybersecurity capacity.

The Senate also will have a role to play. Unlike his House counterpart, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has not publicly campaigned for an expansion of his authorities, so any House-passed measure will likely have to traverse multiple committees in the Senate.

"Hope springs eternal at the beginning of the Congress," Saull said. "As you go through and work out particular details, it's important to make sure the things everyone agrees on get done."