Monday, August 09, 2004

Intelligence reform - 2 -- is Congress a client or partner?

Some additional observations on yesterday's thoughts re the organizational design challenges of reforming the intelligence community. The other side of the Commission's reform package is going to be even harder than the restructuring of the executive branch. The NYT has a good editorial on it yesterday, and it makes for gruesome reading:

The 9/11 commission report has inspired an unseasonable burst of activity on Capitol Hill, whose denizens are usually hibernating or campaigning at this time of year. Nine committees or subcommittees have scheduled hearings this month on the commission's suggestions for improving intelligence-gathering and strengthening domestic security. But Congress has so far ducked what the commission called one of its "most difficult and important" recommendations - its earnest plea that Congress get its own house in order by streamlining the rules, regulations and insanely redundant committee structure that make it impossible to exercise rational oversight over the intelligence activities of the executive branch. [...]

The most obvious victim of the current chaos is the Department of Homeland Security. A weary departmental statistician recently calculated that between the time the department came into being in January 2003 and last month, senior officials testified before 300 Congressional hearings and held 2,000 briefings for members of Congress or their staffs. This works out to an average of 4 hearings and 25 briefings every week, give or take a few - a ridiculous waste of time for officials with so much responsibility. The 9/11 commission estimated that 88 committees and subcommittees assert jurisdictional interest over the department - including, absurdly, the Agriculture Committees, whose claims rest on the fact that the department has responsibility for the Plum Island Animal Disease Center off Long Island. The 9/11 commission recommends that Congress collapse all of these authorities into two committees, and preferably one, in each house. This seems an eminently sensible idea.

The intelligence fiefs are fewer but potentially more intractable. The Armed Services Committees, which now exercise control over the vast intelligence-gathering operations of the Defense Department, are likely to lose power in any restructuring. They are also the most likely to resist. [...]

Here again the commission argues that less is more. It proposes that Congress establish either a single joint committee or a single committee in each house. In either case, the commission says, the panels should consist of a small number of dedicated members with the "time and reason to master the subject and its agencies.'' That is an elegant way of saying that the time has come for Congress to elevate wisdom over political ambition.

The relations within the executive branch are often described in producer/consumer terms -- a sort of internal market. The proposed reforms would be to smash the silos of the producer organizations, to make them more effective at responding to consumer demands but also developing new types of products that the consumers are likely to need in the future (and that the consumers don't yet know they need).

It is much harder to use organizational theory to describe either the current or ideal relations between the intelligence community and Congress. It is certainly time to reduce the burden on the exeuctive branch to respond to such a ridiculous Congressional system. And the NYT makes a good point that the members of better-focused intelligence committees would actually have the time and be expected to master their brief.

On the other hand, streamlining the committees has potential governance costs. The danger of consolidating oversight and budget authority in a small number of committees is that they get captured by the agencies they oversee. This is a common criticism of Congress generally, and has been a constant complaint for decades against the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example. With a large number of committees with at least secondary jurisdiction, senior civil servants or government experts have some recourse when things are starting to go badly off the rails under the leadership of an agency. A tactical leak to a friendly member of a committee that's not the one with primary jurisdiction, but which does have some sort of jurisdiction, can be a valuable safeguard for the system as a whole. This is especially the case when the information would be classified and not available to a member of Congress who was not a member of a committee with jurisdiction.

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