In the founding of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Congress recognized that the physical and economic security of America would require a close working relationship between the agency and the private sector. It is important that lawmakers not lose sight of this connection.
In the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Congress created a special position reporting to the secretary on a wide range of issues impacting private sector stakeholders. This special position, and an amendment to the legislation, led to the creation of the DHS Private Sector Office. Congress recognized that almost all of the department’s activities had a direct impact on the private sector, and to better ensure DHS served the interest of the United States the office sought to leverage the assets of companies in the event of a disaster -- and engage them regularly to ensure those disasters do not occur.
Nearly everything the department does interacts with companies at one level or another. Think about Customs and Border Protection’s mission to both facilitate trade and travel and secure the border. How about the Transportation Security Administration’s impact on not only the airlines, but also the travel and tourism industries that rely on airlines, including theme parks, hotels, rental cars and restaurants, among others? What about immigration, labor, cybersecurity or even intellectual property rights? The department clearly has dual roles, to protect the U.S. from threats but also to sure ensure that our economy charges forward without overburdensome regulation. The importance of this dual role becomes clear when one considers the fact that nearly 85% of all critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector.
It is for these reasons that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been such a strong supporter of the Department of Homeland Security’s Private Sector Office. This is specifically why we call upon Congress to ensure that the assistant secretary leading this office reports directly to the secretary and is not lost in the bureaucracy. This assistant secretary must have access and play a direct role in aggregating and strategizing the secretary’s engagement with the private sector. As Congress moves forward with its legislative agenda, it must institutionalize the Private Sector Office as a permanent fixture in the office of the DHS secretary, and it must ensure the office has the resources to succeed.
Time and time again the Private Sector Office has proven its value by engaging companies, governments and the department at the highest levels. In the event of a natural or man-made disaster, organizing the private sector’s response and leveraging its assets helps the resiliency of every community. If the issues are regulatory in nature, the private sector is the first to the table to come up with ideas that solve the problem and ensure that the department’s goals are achieved.
Under the current administration, it has become clear that the office will not have the appropriate stature or resources to succeed. Even other agencies inside of the department have had tremendous relationships with the private sector; it is headquarters that needs to formalize that engagement. Despite Congress’ intent that this office should report directly to the secretary, the office has been placed deep in the bureaucracy and stripped of resources to function effectively. To leverage the private sector’s assets, intellectual capital, and ensure the department achieves its goals, it is critical that Congress sends a clear message to this and future administrations that this office is a priority -- and shall remain a priority regardless of who is in office.