Senate DHS Reauthorization Bill Likely to Streamline Oversight, Include Election Security

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Susan Walsh/AP

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Senators also aim to limit partisan amendments to the bill that would reauthorize DHS for the first time in 15 years.

The Senate version of a Homeland Security Department reauthorization bill is likely to include language strengthening the department’s election cybersecurity mission and simplifying the rat’s nest of crisscrossed congressional reporting lines, lawmakers said Wednesday.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., has shared a Senate rewrite of the House-passed reauthorization bill, which has already prompted about 75 amendments from committee members, Johnson said during a committee business meeting.

The Johnson bill, which is in the form of an amendment to the House bill, and the committee amendments are not yet public.

The House bill does not limit the myriad congressional committees that have oversight over Homeland Security and its component agencies, an issue that Johnson and Democratic committee members said would be important for the Senate version.

Johnson repeated a plan Wednesday to create a congressional commission that would examine and simplify the department’s congressional oversight.

“Fractured congressional oversight means no oversight in my opinion,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said.

House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, has bemoaned jurisdictional overlaps that hinder department oversight.

A memorandum of understanding between key committee chairs at the launch of the current Congress helped McCaul to pass the House reauthorization bill and a separate bill that reorganizes and renames the department’s cybersecurity and infrastructure protection division.

Those overlapping oversight lines are largely a result of the ad hoc way Homeland Security was created after the Sept. 11 attacks by moving agencies and offices from elsewhere in government.  

If the Homeland Security reauthorization becomes law, it will be the first time the department’s work has been codified into law since its initial creation.

One likely amendment to the Senate bill would address the department’s efforts to strengthen and modernize state and local election systems against cyberattacks.

Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., are working together on the amendment, which Lankford said would help Homeland Security communicate directly with states about election cyber threats and speed up security clearances for state election officials.

Lankford and Harris are co-sponsors of the Secure Elections Act, which would give a blanket authorization for Homeland Security to share information about election threats with states unless the department’s secretary determines in writing that there’s a reason not to share specific information.

Lawmakers have criticized Homeland Security for being too slow to share information about Russian attempts to penetrate state election systems in advance of the 2016 presidential contest.

In many cases, the department shared information with state government officials, but not with election officials who lacked security clearances.

Other portions of the Senate bill would codify Homeland Security’s current operations and various recommendations from its inspector general’s offices and the Government Accountability Office, Johnson said.

Both Johnson and the committee’s ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., pledged to try to limit amendments that will spark partisan rancor and could threaten the reauthorization bill’s passage Wednesday.

“One of the things I like to say is that trying to play gotcha with the other side is a little bit like a sugar high,” McCaskill said. “It’s just rhetoric and it doesn’t accomplish anything.”