Boosting House oversight

Pelosi reveals plan for intelligence subcommittee

December 15, 2006|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi unveiled a shake-up yesterday of the way the House tracks the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies, a move designed to respond to the 9/11 commission's blistering criticism of congressional oversight of intelligence matters.

The proposal, to be adopted when Democrats take control in January, would establish a subcommittee that would act as an adviser to House members responsible for defense and intelligence spending.

"Its purpose is to protect the American people with the best possible intelligence, recognizing the role that Congress plays in all this," Pelosi said. The new panel would include members of existing committees that oversee intelligence policy and set spending levels for intelligence activities, she said.

The 9/11 commission's recommendations for streamlining the way Congress oversees U.S. intelligence agencies have been among the most difficult to enact.

Powerful committee chairmen responsible for defense and intelligence issues have forcefully opposed any changes that would erode their turf. A parallel effort in the Senate appears to be going nowhere because of opposition from senior Democrats who expect to reclaim their majority power next month.

Pelosi's initiative won praise from specialists who follow the issue. But some expressed skepticism about the new subcommittee's ability to make a significant impact, since her proposal would not take authority away from existing power centers, such as the defense appropriations subcommittee, which have historically resisted such changes.

"It's something in the right direction," said John Fortier, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "I do have some concerns about how it will actually work."

The Pelosi plan falls short of the 9/11 commission's prescription to create either a single House-Senate committee to oversee intelligence policy and budgeting, or separate panels in each chamber of Congress with those responsibilities.

Even so, former Democratic and Republican commissioners praised the proposal.

Former commission member Tim Roemer, a Democrat who served on the House Intelligence panel when he was a member of Congress, praised Pelosi's proposal as a "creative solution" to the broken oversight apparatus on Capitol Hill.

"This is a major reform, and a significant and important step forward in improving oversight," he said, adding that marrying the spending and policy responsibilities would make it harder for intelligence agencies to "game the system" by playing one committee off the other, as they do now.

Pelosi's plan reflects the realities of turf-conscious chairmen, said former commissioner Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator. "It's not exactly what we wanted, but it's a significant improvement," he said.

The committee's potency will rest with the lawmakers Pelosi appoints to it, said former commission member John F. Lehman Jr., who served in the Reagan administration. He said he hoped Pelosi would appoint Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat whom Pelosi passed over for the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, to the new panel.

Former commissioners like Roemer had joined former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who led the commission, to press lawmakers to enact congressional reform. Several family members of 9/11 victims like Mary Fetchet, who lost her son in the World Trade Center, joined the effort.

Fetchet said she was "optimistic" about the tone Pelosi's proposal sets for completing the balance of the commission's reforms - fewer than half of which have been implemented, calling congressional reorganization "an important first step, and a challenging one."

The 9/11 commission branded congressional oversight "dysfunctional" because one committee in each house sets intelligence policy but the intelligence agencies pay far more attention to the spending panels, which pay their bills and salaries but have little time for oversight.

Congressional reforms would be limited if the Senate doesn't make similar changes. Senate Democrats did not immediately embrace Pelosi's plan.

Three key senators have strongly resisted proposals to alter intelligence jurisdictions: incoming Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat; as well as Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Inouye and Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, the leaders of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee.

Byrd has not had a chance to evaluate Pelosi's proposal, and he has not discussed any significant jurisdiction changes on spending subcommittees when speaking with his House counterparts, said Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin.

Congressional Republicans said they appreciated Pelosi's efforts to reach across the aisle and improve oversight but did not immediately embrace the proposal either and were skeptical about whether it would fulfill the goals of the commission.

A Republican aide noted that the 9/11 commission recommended a single committee for policy and spending because it thought that the intelligence committees, which are responsible for policy, were not being treated seriously. Pelosi's proposal could create another spending committee, enhancing the power of congressional appropriators, he said.

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