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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, one part of the intelligence community that General Clapper would oversee as DNI resides inside another unwieldy bureaucracy: the Department of Homeland Security.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A few weeks ago, at the Homeland Security forum in Aspen, Colorado, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security, Jane Holl Lute, was asked about congressional oversight of her department. How many committees and subcommittees have oversight over DHS?

Her answer boggled the minds of neophytes like me. People who work at the upper reaches of the agency came with minds already boggled. How many committees?

Ms. JANE HOLL LUTE (Deputy Secretary, Department of Homeland Security): 108.

SIEGEL: 108. Congressman Peter King of New York is the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): When the 9/11 Commission made its report back in 2004, and they said there were too many committees and subcommittees, the number was 86.

SIEGEL: And it kept growing. 108 is the total of committees, subcommittees, caucuses, groups that get briefings or hear testimony from DHS officials on Capitol Hill.

Representative King has put all this on a chart, with the Department of Homeland Security at the center and the committees along the periphery.

Rep. KING: You have the House Energy Committee. There's five subcommittees there. House Judiciary Committee, four subcommittees. There's the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee, four subcommittees.

SIEGEL: The House Steel Caucus, the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

Rep. KING: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the House National Resources Committee, all of whom have subcommittees as well.

SIEGEL: And in addition to the subcommittees and full committees in the House, there are parallel subcommittees and full committees in the Senate. The committee that King serves on has primary jurisdiction over the department, but he says not always. And he says that works to the department's detriment.

Rep. KING: It just becomes a minefield, and also it is a tremendous source of delay, time and confusion for the Department of Homeland Security.

SIEGEL: How much time does it consume?

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Former Secretary, Department of Homeland Security): We calculated that in 2007-2008, there were more than 5,000 briefings and 370 hearings.

SIEGEL: Michael Chertoff was secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009.

Mr. CHERTOFF: That consumes an awful lot of time. But truthfully, Robert, most people miss the biggest problem. And that is that the direction you get from the committees tends to be inconsistent.

SIEGEL: The Department of Homeland Security was created in response to 9/11. It included a new agency, the Transportation Security Administration, but it absorbed several existing agencies - the Border Patrol, Immigration, Secret Service, FEMA, the Coast Guard.

Mr. CHERTOFF: And that meant you had a number of components that historically were tied to other committees besides the Homeland Security Committee, and none of those committees wanted to relinquish their jurisdiction, so it wound up with a typical compromise where everybody gets a little slice of the pie.

SIEGEL: While the whole pie was overseen by the committees on Homeland Security. Chertoff says one powerful force working against streamlining was money.

Mr. CHERTOFF: There's no question that the parts of DHS that have been the most attractive to multiple committees are those that are involved in giving money out.

SIEGEL: But money may be one reason for there being 108 committees, subcommittees and caucuses overseeing the Department of Homeland Security, but there are other reasons.

Mr. TOM MANN (Political Scientist): They're low minded and high minded.

SIEGEL: That's political scientist Tom Mann. On the low side, he says, legislators can use a committee assignment as a campaign credential. On the high side, Mann says, many members really do have expertise in an agency - say the Coast Guard or Customs - and they are reluctant to be cut out.

Mr. MANN: To have their expertise, their knowledge, their policy interests shuttered aside and given to, say, a single overriding committee where such expertise does not exist.

SIEGEL: Advocates of streamlining, like Senator Joseph Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, say that there is a perfectly good model for overseeing the sprawling Department of Homeland Security. It's the way that Congress oversees the Defense Department.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): We have one Senate Armed Services Committee. It oversees the entire Department of Defense, which is a budget, oh, probably 15 times the size of the Homeland Security budget. So this is doable.

SIEGEL: Senator Lieberman says the only reason his committee didn't get full oversight was the opposition from other committees that wouldn't let go.

Sen. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: For instance, the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is overseen by us but also by the Commerce Committee, which had traditional jurisdiction. The Secret Service, which is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, well, the Judiciary Committee insisted that it didn't want to lose oversight of that Secret Service, and so it went.

SIEGEL: One thing this is not is a partisan issue. This began when the Republicans controlled Congress, and it continued under the Democrats.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee fought to keep oversight authority of the Secret Service, liberal Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and conservative Utah Republican Orrin Hatch stood shoulder to shoulder against independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and his Republican committee colleague Susan Collins of Maine.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I suppose if you were looking for any sign of continuing bipartisanship or non-partisanship, it is that it does not matter what party you belong to. If you're on the same committee, you will fight to the death to protect the jurisdiction and authority of that committee.

SIEGEL: It's turf.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Well, it is turf, yeah.

SIEGEL: Senator Lieberman says unless a president and a Homeland Security secretary choose to make a big issue of this, it's likely to remain as is.

We asked the leaders of the two chambers of Congress about the 108 committees, subcommittees and caucuses. Majority Leader Harry Reid's office had no comment.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office sent us a written reply, saying that the Committee on Homeland Security is the primary committee for oversight of the department, but on some important topics involving the DHS, for example the Gulf oil spill, the speaker's office says there have been special briefings: All the members of both parties in both houses have been invited.

NORRIS: And if you're confused, we put together our own chart of these 108 oversight committees and subcommittees. You'll find that at npr.org.

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