Five years ago, the Department of Homeland Security officially put out its oversize shingle in a broad reorganization of the federal government. The new department can point to one critical success: On its watch, there hasn’t been another major terrorist attack. How much of the credit for this achievement really belongs to DHS — as opposed to our assault on al-Qaeda, CIA operations, the terrorist-surveillance program, or even plain dumb luck — is an open question.
We were always skeptical of the need for a brand-new department. Even as the Bush administration issues press releases celebrating the five-year milestone, it’s worth noting that the idea for DHS didn’t originate at the White House. Instead, it came from Congress — and specifically from Democratic senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas. In the wake of 9/11, when the pair proposed the assembling of the first new cabinet-level agency since the 1980s, President Bush resisted before relenting under political pressure.
If DHS hadn’t been created, there would have had to be some sort of coordinating entity, probably on the model of the National Security Council. And some of the departmental reorganization that took place made sense: There was little rationale beyond bureaucratic inertia for segregating the Border Patrol and Customs Service into the Departments of Justice and the Treasury, respectively. For years, think tanks had issued a series of politely ignored papers suggesting the two be combined. By most accounts, the sum of the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of DHS is greater than its constituent parts. Whether this union had to occur under the umbrella of a new cabinet office is less clear.
When the White House finally decided to embrace DHS, it cited cost control as one of its chief motives. “We’ve got a lot better chance of controlling the size and activity of government when it’s all in one place than when it’s spread across a bunch of agencies,” Mitch Daniels, former head of the Office of Management and Budget, told National Review Online at the time. But in 2003, Bush requested $36 billion for DHS. This year, he asked for more than $50 billion.
Some of these increases have been necessary and reasonable. But others haven’t — and Congress deserves much of the blame. Members of both parties quickly learned that “homeland security” is an effective cover for pork-barrel spending. Under current funding formulas, each state must receive a minimum payment of nearly $7 million in homeland-security grants, without respect to strategic priorities. The 9/11 Commission warned against these grants turning into a new kind of entitlement program, and that’s exactly what they’ve become. To listen to Democratic congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, it would seem that the most pressing issue he faces is ensuring that businesses owned by minorities and women receive their obligatory share of DHS largesse.
Despite the name of Thompson’s committee, neither the House nor the Senate has chosen to rationalize its own homeland-security jurisdictions. Bits and pieces of DHS responsibility remain scattered across various committees and subcommittees that refuse to relinquish their authority over any segment of the federal leviathan. James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation has identified the consolidation of Congress’s currently fragmented oversight functions as one of the most important reforms lawmakers can undertake this year.
But don’t count on it. Critics have cited this problem from the start, and they’ll probably be able to keep citing it for as long as DHS throws itself anniversary parties.