Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 13, 2009

HSC-NSC Merger Debated on the Hill

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,General Homeland Security — by Jonah Czerwinski on February 13, 2009

Yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the question of whether to merge the White House National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council provided for a rare political science discussion with some pretty senior minds on the topic.

First Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, who also led the Office of Homeland Security, which is a sort of predecessor to the HSC, came out opposed to a merger. Fran Townsend, the first and longest serving Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, also recommended against merging her old job.

The opposition faced a difficult barrier to overcome. First, Fran Townsend has publicly described in the past that on two occasions – while serving as the head of the HSC staff – that it ought to merge with the NSC. Both National Security Advisers at the time (Condi Rice and Stephen Hadley) declined to take on the mission. Consider that, if you are Rice or Hadley, the homeland mission is viewed as second tier priority compared to NSC agenda items. Indeed, in his opening statement, Ridge acknowledged that the work of the HSC needed to be “elevated…and properly resourced.”

Another challenge contrarians had to overcome was the line of argument that the NSC would be too burdened by the expanded mission to deal with both overseas as well as domestic issues. However, both Ridge and Townsend gave impassioned explanations that the Homeland Security Advisor is unique because this position actually handles issues on both the international and domestic fields. Well, if someone can do it….

(Ranking Member Senator Collins gave a long list of reasons why she believes that a merger of the HSC and NSC would result in dangerous outcomes. She then concluded by assuring the witnesses that she approached the subject with an open mind.)

And in the other corner, Christine Wormuth and Jim Locher delivered their reasons why the shared objective (elevated, accelerated, properly resourced homeland security policy at the White House level) can be achieved more effectively if some kind of merger is undertaken to give the HSC more clout and access while modernizing what Locher described as “the legacy structures and processes of a national security system that is now more than 60 years old and no longer help American leaders formulate coherent national strategy.”

Christine focused on why the status quo isn’t working by citing a number of self-inflicted challenges. These include artificial bifurcation of national policy issues and unintended (and unwarranted) second-tier status in the interagency of the HSC staff and its work. She explained the results, but from my experience the impact is that the Defense Department almost always outweighs DHS in interagency negotiations. I had colleagues on both sides of the National Maritime Security Strategy process and DOD was always the heavyweight in an issue area that DHS out to lead in.

All witnesses sought the same ultimate outcome: The most effective White House structure to advise the President and coordinate the interagency policy execution of the homeland security mission. They just viewed different routes of getting there. It is worth noting that all but Townsend advocated for immediate change. She recommended some very important criteria to be used in determining any reforms if reform is pursued, which she believes it needn’t. Ridge actually recommended a “Reform over relocation” approach in which the Secretary of Homeland Security gets a seat on the NSC, the HSC is given more resources to staff up, the counterterrorism mission is made equal to or less than the all-hazards protection mission for the HSC.

In the end, the White House will make its decision based on its intention to achieve the same desired outcomes. Whether that comes in the form of a more unified structure that incorporates both the NSC and HSC or the more modest changes outlined by former Secretary Ridge, this will require more agreement between the Congress and President. Let’s hope a focus on the desired outcomes drives the discussion.

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Comment by Arnold

February 13, 2009 @ 10:43 am

In the spirit of not arguing but asking a government studies question, why does this require “more agreement between the Congress and President?” I was under the assumption that it is up to the President how he or she wants to structure their national security staff within the White House. It’s nice to get input from Congress, but do they actually have to pass legislation or can Obama just issue a National Security directive?

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 13, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

To post a quick answer to the comment above in 2002 Congress passed and the President signed legislation making the HSC a statutory organization within the Executive Offices of the White House. So statute in my judgement is required and that is all to the good from my standpoint even though I support integration of the two Councils. By the way keeping track of all the White House Czars is a problem. I would also add the Drug Czar to the NSC. Okay I have been questioned as to why this support. Bottom line reason is that the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, that created the NSC charged it with integration of military, foreign, and domestic policy to protect the National Security of the United States. Just because earlier NSC Advisors to the President (Hadley and Rice) did apparently not read this key statute, nor has the Committee or those testifying yesterday does not mean that the “domestic” language mentioned above was an accident. Perhaps if the NSC and HSC are to remain seperate that “domestic” language should be removed. My point is based on the fact that these are advisor positons, by statute not operational and not in the chain of command of the military or anything else but designed as honest policy broker. Readers of my comments know that I believe the NSC should be primarily a civilian function, headed by a civilian and staffed at least 80% by civilians. The creeping bias of serving officers and even those in mufti at the NSC is one of the main problems. Note that as a policy integrator and advisor neither NSC or HSC formally control budgets. To do so would undermine that other power house the OMB which has always fought delegate agency funding concepts. Meaning by that that some lead agency or organizations makes budget recommendations for the other Executive Branch organizations involved in its programs, functions, or activities. That of course would undermine the unelected power of the OMB staff. Many Homeland Security programs, functions, and activities were not made part of DHS. So for example, you might think that HSC controlled the budgets of DHS and other Executive Branch organizations dealing with Homeland Security but of course it does not nor does it even have a system to monitor those exenditures. The result of course is repeated unfunded policy mandates being issued by NSC and HSC to the Executive Branch components. Then the initiative is taken out of the hide of existing programs, functions or activities or just does not get done. Something wrong here and I think all directives developed and issued by NSC and HSC staff, even when signed by the President, should have funding implications attached. At any rate the issue is joined and either solution will be evident when the President does or does not do anything. I argue this is a red-herring because NO PRESIDENT has established a true domestic civil crisis response system or chain of command and that failure dictates a militarized solution to large scale domestic events. If we want a system with earlier recourse to military assets operating domestically we have it. And of course the DOD and military continues to undercut the civil agencies with its humongous budgets that if transferred by even 5% to Departments like the STATE Dept. could keep us from needing military solutions to civil administration issues. Hey better to have some system, the military but none but would not be my choice for the oldest and richest democracy (Republic).

Comment by Jonah Czerwinski

February 13, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

Arnold — Good question. The Homeland Security Council is in statute. The HSC staff is not. The White House can simply choose not to convene the HSC and deal with matters under an expanded NSC, which could also be staffed in new ways without legislation (i.e. two deputies, one for CT and one for HLS). However, to alter the HSC itself would require legislation. My guess is that this White House would prefer to seek a more formalized change to the structure (if change is sought) by way of Congressional action.


Comment by Arnold

February 13, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

Ah…I didn’t realize it was included the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Though according to CRS, from that point on it disappeared from the public record: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/RS22840.pdf

So I see your point how the principals could meet under the banner of “HSC,” but have the entire staff working under the NSC.

Comment by Jonah Czerwinski

February 13, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

>>Though according to CRS, from that point on it disappeared from the public record

I remember that report. I think what happened was that the Bush Administration stopped funding the HSC as its own account and instead drew upon funds in the “White House Office” line in the budget. As a result, the HSC had no appropriations of its own, and the Congress had few options to plus up or reduce funding for the HSC. It was totally up to the White House.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 13, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

Memories fade but if I recall correctly either no funding request went forward for the HSC and its staff or none was furnished by Congress. Hoping a complete histor of HSC and its staffing will be done when the Bush library gets going. Reason is simple–it appears that Ridge was undercut and realized he needed to be head of a DHS Department to be taken at all seriously. The interesting thing would be to note where the staff came from and where it went before and after HSC and of course most importantly the drafting process, clearance process, and decision-making behind the various HSPDs. Many have substantive expertise and decision-making buried within their purview. And now of course will they be updated, modified, superseded under President Obama.

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