A comeback for `guardians' in D.C.?

December 08, 2006|By Loch K. Johnson

ATHENS, Ga. -- As soon as it became apparent that Democrats had won majorities in both chambers of Congress, Harry Reid of Nevada, who will become the new Senate majority leader in January, declared: "I believe that the first order of business when we reorganize after the first of the year is congressional oversight." He acknowledged that "there simply has been no oversight in recent years." In fact, oversight has long been a neglected task of Congress.

"The purpose of oversight is to keep bureaucrats from doing something stupid," former U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr., Democrat of Georgia, wryly observed after his many years in Congress. But most members of Congress pay little attention to this task. Instead, they are driven by pressures to raise money for the next election cycle. So they engage in duties more visible to the voters: making speeches, attending events back home, sponsoring new legislation. Closed-door hearings and budget spreadsheets hold less appeal.

The exception to this norm of oversight avoidance occurs when major bureaucratic mistakes or scandals come to light. Then, after the fact, lawmakers display a sudden burst of oversight energy. They hold extensive hearings, cross-examine executive branch officials and write lengthy reports. Missing is the day-to-day scrutiny by lawmakers that might prevent failure and scandal from happening in the first place.

Imagine if the intelligence oversight committees in Congress had persistently questioned officials about their efforts against al-Qaida in the years leading up to 9/11; if they had pushed the intelligence agencies to improve their information-sharing; if they had insisted on tightened airport security, in response to the many CIA reports, from 1995 onward, about the possibility of "aerial terrorism" against buildings in the United States. Instead, as the nation drifted toward disaster, overseers in Congress assumed the posture of the ostrich with its head in the sand.

Lawmakers have assumed three other oversight roles: cheerleader, skeptic and guardian. The cheerleader has only praise for the secret agencies, supporting clandestine programs and budgets requests without question-the usual response of Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In sharp contrast, the skeptic sees no virtue in intelligence operations; some have even called for the abolition of the CIA, as did then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, in 1993.

Rarest is the guardian. Former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, says the ideal overseers are both "partners and critics." The guardian praises bureaucrats when their work is sound but pulls back on the reins when they are headed in the wrong direction. Mr. Hamilton followed this approach when he chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 1985-1987.

Sometimes members of Congress can change their attitudes about oversight. Sen. Barry Goldwater, Republican of Arizona, morphed from ostrich to guardian in 1983, while serving as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The director of central intelligence at the time, William J. Casey, gave the committee the impression that the CIA had not mined harbors in Nicaragua, as rumored. When it became clear the rumors were true, Mr. Goldwater was furious at being misled and subsequently kept a closer watch on the agency.

The question for the new Congress is: Can lawmakers perform as guardians - or, as usual, will they simply act as cheerleaders and ostriches, with a few skeptics here and there? The incentives on Capitol Hill continue to work against the guardian role, which requires time taken away from re-election activities. Success will lie in adopting fresh incentives that encourage oversight.

These incentives should include rewards from the congressional leadership, such as preferential committee assignments for those who perform well as overseers. Public recognition from civic groups would also help. These groups can crown the most deserving lawmakers as "Overseers of the Year." The media and academe could weigh in by doing a better job of explaining to the American people why oversight is important.

Ultimately, voters can cast their ballots against representatives who ignore this vital duty. Without such incentives, ostriches are unlikely to become guardians.

Loch K. Johnson, a Regents professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia, was a staff member on the Senate and the House intelligence committees, and is author of "Seven Sins of American Foreign Policy." His e-mail is johnson@uga.edu.

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