Congressional Reform Difficult, but Urgently Needed

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005
When the 9/11 Commission issued its public report last year, its criticism of intelligence failures and its recommendations for reforming the executive branch of government drew plenty of news coverage. But few seemed to notice another aspect of reform envisioned by the Commission: the need for Congress to overhaul the way it deals with intelligence and homeland security. 

The report itself was quite clear. "Of all our recommendations," it said, "strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need." The Commission called for fundamentally reshaping and centralizing the congressional committee structure on intelligence and homeland security issues, in order to strengthen both oversight and support of the national security apparatus. 

So far, Congress has largely failed to take up the Commission's recommendations. This is unfortunate, but understandable. Government reform is difficult under any circumstances, as the FBI has shown in the years since the September 11 attacks. The Bureau has struggled to change its culture from one of prosecuting cases to one of preventing terrorism. This has demanded more than a wholly new focus and new organizational charts — it has also demanded new methods of hiring, training, and evaluating performance across a sprawling institution. Reform, in other words, essentially means changing the way people do their work, and inertia is a very strong force within large government institutions. 

Reforming anything in government is hard because you will be reapportioning power, and reforming Congress is doubly tough, because on Capitol Hill, people are acutely aware of the apportionment of power. In a reform plan such as the 9/11 Commission's, which deals with redistributing the power of congressional committees, power will be added to one committee and taken away from another. Power may not be the only game that counts in Congress, but it's one you can never ignore — it's why a lot of people run for office, and why more people come to work on Capitol Hill. Every congressional leader knows to expect a tenacious fight from anyone whose power is being threatened. 

Moreover, reform has to be managed if it is to be effective. The keys to any reform effort are skillful management, effective implementation of a new structure and, above all, people; organizational charts cannot carry out a reform effort, people do. Many on Capitol Hill are superb politicians and insightful policy analysts, but reforms of great magnitude demand that they also be able to communicate their goals, delineate new responsibilities, and put those who are best suited to the new structure in positions to make it work. 

Standing by and allowing congressional reform on this matter not to happen will have consequences. Over the last few years, this nation has seen the cost of allowing Congress to fail in its responsibilities for oversight of the executive branch. Congress did not adequately probe pre-war claims regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction; it did not educate itself or the American people about how much the Iraq war was going to cost; it played a passive role in uncovering prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, and it has done next to nothing about the misconduct. 

On the 9/11 Commission, we found that congressional oversight on terrorism in the years leading up to the attacks was severely deficient. Furthermore, because so much information on intelligence and national security is classified, nobody else can do this oversight: not the media, not academia, not the public. Only the congressional committees charged with the task can do this, and currently they are not capable of doing a good enough job. We are worse off as a nation — and as a democracy — when Congress shirks its duties. 

So while reforming the congressional committee structure dealing with intelligence matters may be extremely difficult to carry out, that is not an excuse for ignoring the need. Not when it comes to the safety and security of the American people. The 9/11 Commission was quite blunt about why Congress needs to act: "The other reforms we have suggested…will not work if congressional oversight does not change, too," we wrote. "Unity of effort in executive management can be lost if it is fractured by divided congressional oversight." 

We are in danger of just that, and although Congress' inaction is understandable, it is no longer acceptable. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)