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Do we need DHS? Yes.

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The CATO Institute released a short opinion piece today by one of its senior fellows, Michael Tanner, entitled “Do we need the DHS?” This story follows on a long legacy of similar opinion pieces in the news media, such as this piece from 2013. The new piece from CATO raises the question, following the recent resolution of the DHS funding debate, as to whether the Department of Homeland Security is needed. The piece lists off a number of the Department’s weaknesses and challenges, such as diffuse Congressional oversight, challenges with grants management, and morale issues – all of which are legitimate issues. But the piece then makes a gargantuan logical jump to assert that the Department of Homeland Security should be broken up in light of these problems and challenges. This proposal, if implemented, would be disastrous in terms of DHS’s performance of its key missions and would be contrary to the principles of effective government management.

I don’t think that there is a strong likelihood of proposals such as this being seriously considered by Congress, but I still think that it is important to push back against arguments such as this, and make the case for the ongoing value and necessity of the Department of Homeland Security. There is a long list of arguments that I could make here, but I’ll summarize my case with these four:

First, and most importantly, the Department in many respects has become much more than the sum of its parts in the last decade, with respect to its operational mission performance. CBP, ICE, USCIS and the Coast Guard all work together to carry out the Department’s border security and immigration missions. CBP, TSA and ICE all work together to prevent terrorist and other illicit travel (e.g. human trafficking) to the United States. FEMA and the Coast Guard have become closer since DHS was created in terms of their disaster response roles, and other operational components have been called on to support major disaster response efforts. ICE, the Secret Service, and NPPD all have significant cybersecurity responsibilities, and are working more closely together in support of their respective cyber activities. And all of the operational entities of DHS have some role (although admittedly not the lead federal role) in counterterrorism, and DHS information has played a critical role in disrupting several of the higher-profile terrorist plots targeting the United States over the past 7-8 years.

Second, the Department has played the critical federal role since its inception in integrating state and local law enforcement and first responders into supporting its missions. This is true not only with respect to FEMA and disaster response, but equally importantly with respect to counterterrorism, and increasingly in the last few years with respect to cybersecurity. (Of note on this issue, contrary to the CATO piece, fusion centers are not “operated by the DHS” – they are entities owned and operated by state and local governments, each with a small number of federal employees detailed by DHS and DOJ.)

Third, stories such as this promote a distorted perspective on the growth of DHS over the past thirteen years. The story says that “spending has skyrocketed, tripling from $18 billion per year in 2002 to more than $54 billion last year.” This statistic likely refers to the OMB’s government-wide crosscut of homeland security spending, but that annual analysis is not solely about DHS; OMB’s numbers include items such as domestic force protection at the Department of Defense and biosecurity programs at HHS. In reality, the DHS budget has grown since its inception from $36 billion in FY 2002 to $55 billion in FY 2011 – but this growth rate is far from a “tripling” of the budget. (Budget numbers taken from DHS’s response to a Question for the Record by Sen. Ron Johnson from a 2011 Senate hearing. See numbered pages 1029-1031 of this very large PDF.)

It’s also worth noting that most of this growth was not due to sprawling bureaucracy but due to increases to frontline operational capacity, in terms of personnel (notably the doubling of the size of the Border Patrol), technology and infrastructure. The reality is that the parts of DHS that I would consider to be “headquarters” – the Office of the Secretary and Executive Management (OSEM), the Office of the Undersecretary of Management, the Offices of Operations Coordination and Intelligence Analysis, and the Science and Technology Directorate – account for only 1.7% of the DHS workforce, a large share of whom are carrying out government-wide Congressional mandates in areas such as IT management and financial oversight.

Fourth, anyone who proposes dismantling DHS should have the burden of proposing what they would do with its constituent parts, and how such an initiative would improve the performance of the Department’s current missions. The five entities that have responsibility for immigration, border security and travel security (CBP, ICE, USCIS, Coast Guard, TSA), where the rationale for operational integration is strongest, account for 195,000 of the Department’s 225,000 employees – around 87%. Is the author proposing that these five entities should not be within the same Cabinet department? If he is, he’s making a proposal that will have a serious negative impact on the government’s performance of these missions. If he is not, then he’s not really proposing to break up DHS, but instead proposing a more moderate tinkering, perhaps by returning the Secret Service to the Treasury or making FEMA an independent agency again. I wouldn’t recommend either of these; in particular, I think FEMA is now critically interlinked with many other parts of DHS. The reality is that there is no realistic option for a major overhaul of DHS that does not have significant operational impacts.

My bottom line: is the Department of Homeland Security today everything that Congress envisioned it to be when it created it in 2002? No, not yet. (And this is in part due to external factors beyond the Department’s control, such as (a) the decisions in 2002-2003 to hobble its intelligence-related mandate from the start by creating TTIC and the Terrorist Screening Center outside of DHS (b) and the ongoing dysfunctional structure of Congressional oversight). But has it made substantial progress toward realizing this vision? Yes. Would additional major organizational changes improve the performance of DHS’s current missions? No, and they would more likely backfire, and introduce substantial new operational and management-related risks.

For all of these reasons, and others, we still need DHS. And we’re better served as a nation by an ongoing policy discussion focused on how it can be improved and made more efficient, rather than a debate about breaking it up.


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