The final results of the 2006 midterm elections are now all but in, and it’s clear that the Democratic party will have a 30 seat majority in the House and a 51-49 majority in the Senate. This will lead to a number of key changes in the Congressional agenda for homeland security, which I’ll discuss in detail in this post.
But the most important implication of this power shift is that homeland security will finally become a subject that is owned by the entire spectrum of political sentiment, and not one party. The Republican Party has had full control over the executive branch and legislative branch since the Homeland Security Act was passed in the lame duck session after the 2002 elections; this is the first time since DHS has been in existence that the Democratic Party will have real power. This should lead to a greater sense of shared responsibility over the nation’s key homeland security responsibilities, and will hopefully diminish some of the distrust about the core idea of “homeland security” that has existed within part (but not all) of the Democratic segments of the general population.
Before looking at issues, it’s necessary to run down the changes in leadership on homeland security issues in Congress. In the House, it’s certain that Rep. Bennie Thompson will chair the Homeland Security Committee, and I’d expect that most if not all of the current ranking members on the committee – Loretta Sanchez, Zoe Lofgren, Bill Pascrell, Bob Etheridge, James Langevin, and Kendrick Meek – will become subcommittee chairs. In the Senate, I’d expect that Joe Lieberman will chair the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, even after all of the rancor over the past few months from his Senate race. I’d hesitate to prognosticate now on HSGAC subcommittees, because I wouldn’t rule out a reshuffling of the committee structure during the start of the 110th Congress in a way that would impact the subcommittees.
In terms of issues, I’d expect to see a number of issues get earlier attention, based upon what we’ve heard so far and my own conjecture. Here are seven that are likely to be near the top of the agenda:
1. Implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations. In the aggregate, this idea is an oversimplification, because a number of the recommendations are not amenable to legislative fixes. But many of them can be addressed by legislation, e.g. resolving emergency spectrum issues and making grant allocations completely risk-based. On this latter issue, the barrier to date hasn’t been a Dem-Rep divide; it’s been a big state vs. small state divide, and nothing in the current realignment changes that. I also think there’s a lot of work to be done on the recommendation concerning how the “U.S. border security system should be integrated into a larger network of screening points.”
One other important recommendation by the 9/11 Commission concerned the creation of permament homeland security committees. I’ve written repeatedly about this issue over the last two years, arguing that while the arrangement in the House is more or less sufficient, the Senate did not go far enough in empowering the HSGAC. If the Democratic leadership in the Senate is concerned about implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations, the first thing that they need to do is give the HSGAC broader authority over transportation security (which is at Commerce now), chemical facility security (which EPW has claims some authority over), and border security (which is now at Judiciary) at a minimum. Perhaps the “government affairs” part of the HSGAC should be spun off to the Senate Budget Committee as part of this realignment, since it’s the other Senate committee that has a government-wide focus. For more on this issue, see this post from September.
2. Rail and transit security. According to a story in CQ (subscription req’d), HSC Chairman-elect Bennie Thompson is already planning to bring up rail and transit security language that had been removed from the port security bill during the final conference as a new piece of legislation early in the 110th. While there are limits to what can be done to counter rail and transit threats, I think we are clearly not doing enough today – see this post from July for more on this topic – and movement on such legislation is warranted.
3. Chemical plant security. The language that was attached to FY 2007 DHS appropriations on chemical plant security was a sham, and made a mockery of the comprehensive legislation that had been passed by the HSC and HSGAC on a bipartisan basis earlier in the year. Hopefully one of the first things that the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate will do is go back to these bills, fix a couple of the small flaws in them, and get this passed and to the President’s desk. I’d be surprised if he would veto such a bill.
4. Border security and immigration reform. As the President admitted in his press conference yesterday, the likelihood of passing comprehensive border security and immigration reform legislation has increased with the election of a Democratic Congress. I think there now will be a window of time in 2007 to revisit this issue, and pass a bill along the lines of the Senate’s version of the legislation in 2006.
Whatever passes will likely be much less punitive than what would have emerged if the House Republicans had decided to actually negotiate with the Senate this summer rather than playing games with amateurish field hearings and insisting that they needed a “majority of the majority” to move forward. This turned out to be a strategic miscalculation of the first order. And contrary to their notion that demagoguing this issue would help Republicans to protect seats, the opposite was in fact true, as vocal anti-immigration hardliners in the House such as John Hostettler and J.D. Hayworth were booted out of office on Tuesday.
5. Revisiting lost ‘party-line’ votes. On a number of occasions in 2005 and 2006, there were party-line votes in committees or on the floor on contentious homeland security issues. Examples include votes on 100% scanning of inbound maritime cargo, 100% screening of domestic cargo, and the relationship between C-TPAT validation and risk targeting scores. In some cases, the Democrats lost votes on these issues by 1 or 2 votes in committee. I’d expect each of them to be revisited at some point in the coming year, most likely in the context of the FY 2008 DHS appropriations bill and/or a DHS authorization bill.
6. DHS authorization legislation. As mentioned in the last sentence, I think we’re likely to see more progress on DHS authorization legislation than we’ve seen in the last two years. This has been a secondary priority in the House to date, and not even on the agenda in the Senate.
Any authorization bill would and should likely focus on the management and governance of DHS, focused on ways to strengthen its core capabilities. For example, an authorization bill should have a section on DHS workforce issues, focusing perhaps on the creation of a new multi-agency career track of ‘Homeland Security Officers’ who could be the robust core of the DHS workforce. (See this post from March for more on this). And it should have a section on the education and professional development of that workforce. (See this post for more).
I’d also expect an authorization bill to revisit some of the issues concerning the way that DHS handles classification; for example, modifying the rules concerning ‘Sensitive But Unclassified’ (SBU) information.
7. Increased oversight. One consequence of the congressional power shift is that we’re likely to see increased congressional oversight of the executive branch, including DHS. I actually think that DHS has been subject to a fairly solid amount of oversight to date; I often can barely keep up with all of the GAO reports, DHS IG reports, congressional investigations (e.g. the post-Katrina reports), and media investigations of DHS. But there has been something missing from these multiple streams of investigations – the willingness to use subpoena power to compel answers when there has been truculence at DHS and elsewhere in the federal government, as was the case during the Senate’s investigation of the response to Hurricane Katrina.
This list is only a starting point; there are a number of other homeland security issues that might also pop up on the Congressional radar screen in the 110th Congress. I hope (and feel initially confident) that this work will be driven by a responsible assessment of threat and vulnerability, weighed against broader societal and economic impacts, and be constantly focused on improving our protection and preparedness of the nation against the serious threats that we still face.