It’s Time for Change at the Department of Homeland Security

Congress must refocus DHS’s missions and address dysfunctional oversight  

The following article was co-authored by Keith Ashdown and Dan Lips.

The Trump Administration’s decision to send hundreds of federal law enforcement officers to Portland to protect federal buildings and confront (and beat up) protesters and rioters highlights longstanding problems with the Department of Homeland Security’s mission and toothless Congressional oversight. Systemic reform of the vast 240,000 person agency should be a top priority for the next Congress. 

Formed in 2002 after the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security is charged with many of the federal government’s most serious and important responsibilities: Preventing terrorism, securing the nation’s borders, administering and enforcing immigration laws, supporting national cybersecurity, and responding to national emergencies and natural disasters. 

Fulfilling these jobs is the responsibility of eight large component agencies and many offices led by a Secretary and headquarters staff in Washington. But DHS’s leadership has limited power and political capital to manage the day-to-day operations of its large organization. As a result, the Department has limited unity of effort, widespread management challenges, and struggles to accomplish its diverse missions.

Many of the Department’s problems are a result of Congress’s fractured and disorganized oversight. Since Congressional committee chairs fought over jurisdiction when DHS was established, the Department and its component agencies must answer to many Congressional committees and subcommittees. 

This results in significant problems. The biggest is Congress’s inability to fully reauthorize the Department after nearly two decades. Another is that DHS struggles to remain accountable to the legislative branch or answer basic Congressional information requests in a timely manner. As a result, the Department’s lack of transparency undermines public trust and fuels partisan conflicts about its operations.

Under the Trump Administration, the Department has also been hamstrung by epic leadership instability with five different Secretaries, only two of whom passed Senate confirmation for that position. Many of the heads of DHS’s components are currently led by acting officials. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, has not had a Senate confirmed director since the Obama Administration. While burdensome, the Senate nomination and confirmation process works essentially as a job interview with the Legislative Branch. It results in important compromises and shared political ownership of the Department’s leadership and operations. Bypassing this process undermines public accountability and ultimately weakens the Department.

To be sure, the Department’s management and performance challenges predate President Trump and have been the focus of calls for reform for years. While Congressional Democrats are now championing these arguments, Republicans have also warned about DHS’s challenges in the past. 

In 2015, our former boss, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), released a 162 page report reviewing the Department’s missions and programs, capping his decade of oversight of the agency. Senator Coburn warned that DHS was not successfully executing any of its five main missions. He also identified many management challenges and serious security vulnerabilities in key DHS programs, among many other problems.

For example, Coburn’s oversight report highlighted how DHS’s own 2014 strategic review found that “a devastating pandemic remains the highest homeland security risk” among natural occurring events. But the Department had outdated plans and had mismanaged its stockpile of protective supplies and medical countermeasures. “The apparent lack of planning, and mismanagement of past resources to address or mitigate potential health risks, raises serious questions about whether DHS is ready to execute its responsibilities, including protecting its workers, in the event of a serious threat to the nation’s health security,” Coburn wrote. 

Beyond the pandemic, DHS’s organizational and management challenges create real risks for the current deployment of federal officers and contractors to confront protesters in Portland and other cities. Former DHS Inspector General John Roth discussed the Department’s challenges establishing unity of effort and the implications for DHS’s law enforcement mission in 2019 testimony before a House panel

“[O]n issues like use of force and training, DHS simply does not work together as a unified organization. DHS does not have a Department-level office to manage and oversee use of force activities; collect and validate data to assess use of force, minimize risks, and take corrective actions; and ensure use of force policies are updated and incorporate lessons learned. Nor has it attempted to integrate various component training facilities and programs.” 

We are now seeing these problems play out in Portland. Customs and Border Protection offices and ICE agents are taking on new responsibilities for building protection and confronting civil unrest, which are beyond the scope of their training. As a result, DHS’s leaders are expanding their existing 5 core missions to add a new, broad responsibility for domestic law enforcement. This weakens the Department’s focus on its other critical mission areas. It appears that the federal law enforcement officers in Portland did not appear to have benefitted from the kind of crowd control and use-of-force training that most police officers receive at departments in major cities.  

The cost of Congress’s ongoing failure to reform the Department of Homeland Security is ultimately paid by the American people and DHS frontline personnel, many of whom risk their lives every day trying to keep us safe.

The nation, the global threat environment, and our security challenges have changed since 2002. It’s time for Congress to learn from two decades of oversight and challenges to reform DHS.


Keith Ashdown was formerly staff director at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Dan Lips is a Director of Cyber and National Security Policy with the Lincoln Network and a former homeland security director with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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