During the monumental struggle to pass much-needed intelligence reforms, one absolute truth about Washington was reinforced: The hardest thing to do in this town is to take someone's power away. It does not matter if pending legislation is vital to our national security or even if it is three years overdue; it's only human nature to want to protect one's turf.
If the Pentagon's objection to a change in budget authority was the major obstacle to passing the intelligence bill, fierce opposition from powerful committee chairmen in Congress is an even larger threat to achieving one of the Sept. 11 commission's top recommendations: reorganization of Congress to better oversee intelligence and homeland security operations.
Two of the commission's top three recommendations became law in the intelligence bill: creation of a strong director of national intelligence and creation of a counterterrorism center. But the same concerns over turf that held up the intelligence bill for so long are threatening to kill the third main recommendation.
The full reforms sought by the commission have not yet been achieved. Congress must now reorganize to better oversee national security issues, because, as the commission found, the present system has too many overlapping claims to oversight and too little accountability. It is a proven recipe for disaster.
Currently, officials of the Department of Homeland Security must appear before 88 different congressional subcommittees, which the Sept. 11 commission called "perhaps the single largest obstacle impeding the department's successful development." The commission also called the oversight of intelligence "dysfunctional."
At the same time, such reorganization is perhaps the biggest threat to some elected officials' long-standing budgetary and authoritative control. As a result, proposals to change homeland security and intelligence oversight and budgetary authority are meeting major opposition from committee chairmen.
It is unconscionable that, in this post-Sept. 11 world, permanent full congressional committees dedicated to homeland security and intelligence do not exist. What's worse, until recently, rumors were fast and furious that the Select Committee on Homeland Security would be disbanded after just two years.
Instead of weakening the one committee that could consolidate oversight of homeland security, we should be strengthening it, as the Sept. 11 commission has urged. In the 108th Congress, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) was hampered by the watering-down of his committee's jurisdiction. Even his most bipartisan proposals were wrung through several other committees of jurisdiction, limiting the committee's effectiveness. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has recognized the problem, and we hope that he is successful in seeing congressional reorganization through.
To rectify the serious shortcomings in oversight, we have introduced changes to the Rules of the House of Representatives that would reorganize House committees to provide more effective oversight. When the next session convenes, it should be the first thing Congress does. Whether we immediately undertake a reorganization will tell us if Congress is truly serious about reforming our national security structure. Our proposal would:
Create a permanent standing committee on homeland security with exclusive jurisdiction.
Create a permanent standing committee on intelligence with exclusive jurisdiction over intelligence and counterterrorism.
Create a 14th Appropriations subcommittee to deal with intelligence.
These proposals will not be easy to enact on a personal level, but they are no-brainer from a national security perspective. Just as we did in those unifying days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress now has the responsibility, in a bipartisan manner, to take a thoughtful and expedient approach to the Sept. 11 commission's seminal recommendations. That means putting personal power considerations aside to focus on the safety of our nation. It means placing our sworn obligation as members of Congress to defend and protect this country before any other consideration.
Christopher Shays is a Republican representative from Connecticut. Carolyn Maloney is a Democratic representative from New York.