New legislation up for consideration in the U.S. House would revamp the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by modernizing its Countering WMD office and formalizing and expanding its Office of Health Security.
The Health Security and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Act was introduced by U.S. Reps. Val Demings (D-FL), Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), and Lauren Underwood (D-IL). In addition to amending the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to authorize the Office of Health Security, which works to counter pandemics like COVID-19 and monkeypox, as well as biological attacks, the bill would strike a sunset clause leftover from previous legislation and permanently enshrine the Countering WMD Office within DHS, among other things.
“When it comes to weapons of mass destruction and deadly pandemics, we have no room for error,” said Demings, who serves on the House Committees on Homeland Security and Intelligence. “My new legislation will stabilize and expand our efforts to stop chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats to the American people and will also improve oversight and operations to make sure that our time and money is being spent effectively. As we continue to face current and future biological health risks from monkeypox to anthrax, this legislation is critical to protect the safety of DHS personnel and the American people.”
According to supporters, the CMWMD office faces sunsetting without federal action and has faced difficulties expanding its legacy programs. The new legislation would undo the sunset clause and clarify the office’s role as the DHS leader in countering chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. It would also create an advisory council for the office while increasing oversight through an official Government Accountability Office (GAO) review.
“Over the last two years, it has become clear that the Department of Homeland Security needs better tools to prepare for and respond to public health emergencies,” Thompson said. “I support the creation of an Office of Health Affairs and commend Congresswoman Demings for authoring this legislation to fully authorize it. I also appreciate that her bill clarifies authorities for the DHS’ Office of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and is responsive to a recent Government Accountability Office report that warned of the risks of a radiological dirty bomb attack in the U.S. I strongly believe that this bill will improve DHS’ ability to not only counter CWMD threats but also manage its diverse medical and public health responsibilities.”
The Health Security and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Act would authorize and anchor the new Office of Health Security as the lead adviser to DHS on matters of medical, public health, workforce health, and safety matters. That office was created last month when DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas elevated the department’s Chief Medical Officer operation to a distinct office.
Building on this accountability, the new bill would also demand a biodefense review at DHS and the creation of an official departmental biodefense strategy.