January 01, 2005

Oversight Committees

A lot of people will no doubt get up in arms about this story about how Congress is resisting the 9/11 Commission's recommendations to reduce the number of congressional committees that oversee intelligence. And it is a scandal. But the issue's also a bit more complicated than the story makes it out to be.

Here's some background: You'll recall that way back in the day, the 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress consolidate its 88 committees that oversee intelligence into one or two main committees. This seemed like a no-brainer, since as everyone "knows," intelligence officials spend far too much time testifying and not enough time doing intelligence.


Well, not quite. Having too many oversight committees is a relatively minor problem. In the course of writing this piece a while back, I talked to a number of congressional staffers who told me that most of the testifying goes on in the two main committees anyways. That seems plausible enough. To be sure, the system's an unwieldy mess, and Senators and Congressmen get bitchy about the overlap, but it's also not making the country less safe.

The real problems, it seems, are that congressional overseers are too inexperienced to oversee intelligence—especially because they remain term-limited—and that they focus much too much on scandals, personal investigations, and real attention-grabbing stories. There's no incentive for anyone to, say, double-check the CIA's white papers; doing that sort of grunt work, after all, doesn't help anyone get re-elected. Plus, the media doesn't get too attend closed-door intelligence hearings, so there's very little relevant pressure from congressional watchdogs.

On the other hand, you have the argument that the agencies have become too meek and risk-averse, too worried about doing anything that will cause a stink on Capitol Hill. Limiting the number of oversight committees might come in handy here, since there would be fewer directives and requests coming in from Congress. But it's also related to the misplaced incentives above. Members of Congress can get a lot of publicity by going public with some scandalous spy operation or other. They get considerably less publicity from making sure that spy operation goes off smoothly. It's a real problem, though the solutions aren't at all obvious.
-- Brad Plumer 9:36 PM || ||