There’s new potential for reform at the Department of Homeland Security.
On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed its version of a Department of Homeland Security reauthorization bill that was passed by the House last year. This could be the first time DHS will be reauthorized since its creation—and it also creates a chance to reform the department in several key ways.
For instance, a reauthorization bill can address the major problem of DHS’ current management structure. Weaknesses and divisions in the current structure prohibit management from effectively doing its job.
Currently, each of the department’s agencies have their own congressional outreach offices. This greatly weakens DHS’ ability to advance its priorities because the organization isn’t working as a whole. The same is true for other support functions such as general counsels and chief information officers. To remedy this, these support offices should be streamlined and more authority should be given to the DHS-wide office. This will allow DHS to work as a cohesive whole.
To further strengthen DHS, the myriad of different DHS headquarter offices should be consolidated to reduce the number of direct reports to the secretary and to improve DHS operations.
The House bill addressed this problem by creating the Office of External Affairs. Led by a principle assistant secretary, this office would consolidate the current offices of Legislative Affairs, Partnership and Engagement, and Public Affairs. It would be wise for the Senate to take such an approach as well. Furthermore, both chambers should consider merging the Office of Civil Liberties and the Office of Privacy.
There are a host of other ways in which DHS can be reorganized or reformed. Four target areas that Congress should focus on include:
- Aviation Security. Reauthorization of DHS should revisit security models that employ private airport screeners. Congress could expand the Screening Partnership Program and stop the Transportation Security Administration’s micromanaging of the program contracts, or shift to a model based on the Canadian system, which set up a separate government corporation to hire private screeners at airports across Canada following security rules and regulations set by the government.
- Research and Development. In addition to considering folding smaller research offices into DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate, that office itself must improve its focus on useable technology for other DHS components. While some longer-term research is certainly appropriate, the Science and Technology Directorate should allocate more of its time and resources on fewer discrete projects that can be fielded in a short timeframe. To do this, the directorate can improve its collaboration and coordination with other DHS components, increase technology foraging from the private sector, and encourage further private-sector tech development through the SAFETY Act.
- Cybersecurity. Congress should explore a reorganization of the National Protection and Programs Directorate to make it better prepared to counter cyberattack and terrorism. To combat rapidly growing threats in cyberspace, it is vital that DHS improves its outreach to the private sector, increases its support of critical infrastructure operators, including election systems, and works with other government agencies to boost federal cybersecurity.
- Emergency Preparedness. To improve the effectiveness of disaster response, DHS reauthorization should raise the floor for what qualifies as a disaster that warrants Federal Emergency Management Agency aid and prioritize disaster aid toward the most catastrophic disasters. Also, the reauthorization process should consolidate and streamline FEMA’s grant programs to ensure funds are allocated in a risk-based manner.
To function at its full potential, DHS needs reform. Congress now has the chance to use the reauthorization process to enhance the effectiveness of the department. Letting this opportunity go to waste would be a mistake.