At the Water’s Edge: Is House Intelligence Oversight As Good As It Gets?

Katina Slavkova | December 18, 2017

There is a common adage in national security and foreign policy debates that “partisan politics stop at the water’s edge.” This famous statement was first coined by the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) who, at the outset of the Cold War, overcame his political disagreements with the Truman Administration in favor of a bipartisan approach to the president’s major overseas initiatives.  Ever since, this idea has become so ingrained in the American public imagination that we have almost taken it for granted, believing that there is some kind of formidable yet invisible wall guarding against the intrusion of domestic political rancor into decisions about our national security.

Nowhere has this idea been more pervasive than in our expectations of how Congress conducts oversight of intelligence and national security matters.  In fact, the default position has always been that the two intelligence committees are generally bipartisan and somehow will always find a way to work out their political differences for the good of the country. This may be, more or less, still the case for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) but sadly not so much with their House colleagues on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).

This has been a rough year for intelligence oversight in the House. The continuing investigation into election interference by Russia has strained relationships on the committee and further exposed both long-simmering tensions and the generally more partisan posture with which the House oversees sensitive national security issues. Put more bluntly, for HPSCI oversight, politics does not stop at the water’s edge but instead floods the committee room more often than not.

Earlier this month, when HPSCI conducted a rare open markup session for considering legislation on reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the public got a taste of how the committee approaches its work. If you are brave enough I highly recommend that you watch this markup session in its entirety, if for no other reason than to simply witness the public work of a committee that normally does its business behind closed doors.

Under normal circumstances, this open markup should have demonstrated to the American public the seriousness, professionalism, and bipartisan vigor with which members of Congress are supposed to address oversight of national security matters. Instead, we saw a disappointing display of partisan bickering that quickly devolved into airing of largely unjustified grievances hurled from both sides of the aisle.

At the end, this open hearing session failed in assuring the public and the national security establishment that the House intelligence committee is up to the job of overseeing important classified and highly sensitive government programs in a competent and bipartisan manner. Furthermore, this markup session unfortunately became a microcosm of everything that had plagued HPSCI, not just since the beginning of the controversial investigation into Russia’s election interference but, dare I argue, since the establishment of the committee itself in the late 1970s.

A comment that Congressman Jim Himes (D-CT) offered during the markup deliberations perfectly captured the mood on the committee and further diminished hopes  of restoring any semblance of bipartisan comity: “I ask for time in a state of mind of real sadness because I love this committee’s work…Instead where we are today is a bill presented to us about 36 hours ago, a bill that has had exactly zero hearings associated with it….So I do not have an amendment, I just have a lot of sadness.”

I, too, Congressman Himes, have a lot of sadness. Sadness because one of only two, fairly small intelligence oversight bodies in Congress- the House intelligence committee currently has only 22 members and its Senate counterpart, SSCI, is even smaller with only 15 members- has failed to meet even the most basic expectations of providing a routine bipartisan examination of an approximately $73 billion intelligence enterprise (including funding for both the National Intelligence Program and Military Intelligence Program).

But maybe the problem is with us. Maybe we have placed unreasonably high expectations on this committee by projecting our own ideas and hopes of what bipartisan intelligence oversight should look like. Bipartisanship sounds good and national security matters are too important therefore intelligence oversight must be nonpolitical. But maybe we have falsely believed that the House can actually do bipartisan intelligence oversight. Maybe I am slightly exaggerating for dramatic effect but allow me to briefly explain.

Contrary to popular belief, the House intelligence committee was never envisioned as a true bipartisan model. When the House first debated and ultimately established the new intelligence committee in 1977 (one year after the Senate formed SSCI), the leadership had decided the ratio of party seats on the committee would reflect the partisan ratio of seats in the chamber as a whole. In other words, the committee would be just as raucous and partisan as the House itself.

In fact, the story goes that when the newly minted Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, weighed in on the composition of the committee, he had remarked that committees reflect the will of the House, and the will of the House reflects the will of the people, so the committee therefore would be partisan. The House had simply rejected the intelligence oversight model that the Senate had created the previous year.

In markedly different fashion, Senators had already decided in 1976 that intelligence oversight is too important to succumb to political and party considerations. In adopting S. Res. 400 they established an intelligence committee where the majority party would always have only one more seat than the minority no matter the party ratio in the Senate chamber. In addition, they insisted that the vice chairman of the committee would always be the ranking minority member.

This is not to argue that SSCI is immune to partisan fights or that politics never intrude on the committee’s work. Far from it. But the origin and history of both intelligence committees suggest that perhaps it is time to dispense with the mythology that partisan politics stop at the water’s edge and allow that, at least when it comes to oversight of intelligence matters, the House has a long way to go.

Maybe under the circumstances, House intelligence oversight is as good as it gets and if we want something better we would need to fundamentally restructure the committee that is tasked with this role.

Katina Slavkova is a Fellow and Director of the Certificate Program at the Government Affairs Institute

Categories: 115th Congress, Foreign Affairs, House, Intelligence Oversight, Media Center, National Security, Revise & Extend, Updates