When President George W. Bush was making the case for creating a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in mid-2002, his administration assured the public that the new organization "would not 'grow' government."
Rather, by cobbling together 22 separate agencies under one cabinet-level secretary, the federal government would be able to respond more flexibly and efficiently to the threat of terrorism—saving lives and tax dollars.
The administration's allies in Congress were even more glowing about the prospects of the new department.
"We're going to run this department better than we run the rest of the government, and we might learn something that could improve the rest of the government," Sen. Phil Gramm (R–Texas) confidently told The New York Times in November 2002.
This early optimism about DHS, like so many other features of the post-9/11 security state, was misplaced.
Despite promises about its transformative potential, DHS today is everything it was set up to avoid: a bloated, bureaucratic mess controlling some of the most notoriously wasteful and scandal-wracked agencies in the entire government.
In fiscal year 2003, the first year DHS was in business, the department's budget was a sizable $37.7 billion. Today, Congress appropriates $72 billion a year to the department. Despite promises of not growing government, that amounts to an inflation-adjusted 28 percent increase in homeland security spending.
President Joe Biden, a supporter of creating DHS when he was in the senate, has requested $90 billion for the department for fiscal year 2022.
Neither taxpayers nor the department's own workers seem to be getting a benefit from this added largess.
DHS gets the lowest marks of all large departments in the "Best Places to Work" survey of federal workers published each year by the Partnership for Public Service. More than half of its workers giving negative ratings for "effective leadership," "teamwork," and "innovation"—all things the department was intended to excel at.
Things only get worse when one examines the component parts of DHS, which continually rank as among the most inefficient, wasteful, and just plain evil federal government agencies.
For starters, it's the home base for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), perhaps the most visible and annoying legacy of 9/11.
Various news investigations and watchdog reports over the years show that the TSA's invasive passenger screenings still miss an estimated 80 to 95 percent of contraband. Other agency initiatives, like deploying dogs to sniff passengers in security lines and having Federal Air Marshals follow "suspicious" people around airports, have proven just as ineffective.
The TSA also ranks close to the bottom of all government agencies in terms of employee pay, morale, and turnover. That perhaps explains why the agency is having trouble hiring the staff it needs to process returning summer travelers through its security checkpoints—resulting in growing wait times for passengers.
Given the TSA's abysmal performance, airport security is a clear candidate for privatization. Instead, the agency continues to adopt more tasks for itself, from rolling out body scanners in subway stations to enforcing COVID-era mask mandates.
The TSA is hardly DHS's only troubled child. It is also responsible for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The Bush administration argued that incorporating FEMA within DHS would improve communication with the public following a natural disaster and enhance coordination across multiple federal, local, and state disaster response agencies.
That didn't quite work out during Hurricane Katrina in 2005—FEMA's first big test under DHS. A 2006 congressional report on the response to the storm described "a complete communication breakdown" between agencies, with many personnel demonstrating a "general confusion over mission assignments, deployments, and command structure."
Billions of dollars in supplies went undistributed by FEMA immediately after the storm. Worse still, agency officials either ignored or actively thwarted private efforts to deliver aid to Katrina victims.
That's all a far cry from the streamlined communication and coordination that the overarching DHS agency was supposed to provide.
And while the Katrina response remains an unparalleled blunder, government watchdogs continually ding the agency for a confusing red-tape-laden grant-making process that nonetheless manages to provide heaps of aid to ineligible recipients.
One DHS audit of FEMA's disaster relief spending for fiscal year 2015, for instance, found that close to a third of it was "questionable costs, such as duplicate payments, unsupported costs, improper contract costs, and unauthorized expenditures."
Being housed within DHS does mean that FEMA is subject to oversight from the department's Office of the Inspector General. But the agency also has a history of blowing off OIG reports and recommendations.
In addition to the inefficient agencies it houses, DHS is also responsible for some downright evil ones. That includes the federal government's various border security agencies—including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Prior to 9/11, ICE and CBP's predecessor agencies had been housed in the Departments of Justice and the Treasury. Moving them into DHS had consequences outside a simple reshuffling of the org chart.
"Ensconcing immigration in a department focused on national security resulted in a mentality shift," wrote Shikha Dalmia for Reason in 2018. "Immigrants came to be regarded not as friends but as foes—potential terrorists or criminals."
These two agencies have consequently been responsible for some of the worst post-9/11 abuses of the federal government.
Those range from the programmatic—like the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" border policy that led to thousands of families being separated—to more one-off episodes, like Border Patrol agents running down migrants with their vehicles or being outed as serial killers.
The detention facilities run by DHS's immigration enforcement arms are frequently criticized in watchdog reports and lawsuits for being filthy, overcrowded places where imprisoned migrants are routinely abused by fellow detainees and staff.
For some critics, the waste and abuse at DHS's various agencies and offices is a direct by-product of shoving all these unrelated government functions into one single department.
"The structure of DHS creates waste and inefficiency. The problem stems from a span of control that is too large and spread across too many disciplines," wrote David Rittgers in a 2011 policy analysis for the Cato Institute. "If consolidation of unrelated agencies were an effective way to run government, the cabinet would have just one member responsible for all agencies—the secretary of Government—and be done with it."
There's a libertarian case to be made that pretty much everything that DHS does shouldn't be handled by the federal government or even any government at all. But one need not accept that critique to see that the promised efficiencies of one overarching Department of Homeland Security have never materialized.
Rather than continuing to grow its budget and expand its authority, we should consider how best to unwind this failed experiment in bureaucratic reorganization.
Rent Free is a weekly newsletter from Christian Britschgi on urbanism and the fight for less regulation, more housing, more property rights, and more freedom in America's cities.