In Search of Good Intelligence Oversight
Katina Slavkova | January 9, 2019
After a moment of pomp and circumstance to accompany the swearing-in of the new Congress, the 116th Congress quickly pivoted to the less glamorous work of legislating. The most immediate concern for Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives, is to end a partial government shutdown that has dragged on for 19 days. But the beginning of a new Congress is also an opportunity to consider organizational and internal reforms.
Congressional experts, reporting with increasing urgency the atrophy of basic congressional responsibilities, identify many priorities for reform. One timely area is addressing deficiencies in the intelligence oversight process, including reforming the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) to mirror its more effective Senate counterpart and improving the appropriations process for intelligence oversight.
Almost 15 years since the 9/11 Commission report concluded that intelligence oversight in Congress is “dysfunctional,” its major recommendations remain largely unimplemented. When the Commission issued a follow-on report on its 10-year anniversary, it noted that “congressional reform is the most important unfulfilled recommendation,” especially as it pertained to improving the highly fragmented and inefficient Department of Homeland Security oversight process. 9/11 Commission Chair Thomas Kean was even more unsparing in his assessment, concluding that “Congress is the biggest obstacle to stopping the next terrorist attack.”
The 115th Congress saw a particularly egregious display of partisan bickering and dysfunction, with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) presenting an especially challenging case. In a recent conversation, incoming HPSCI Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) addressed this, saying: “There are days when I feel that I’m on a ship and the rivets are popping off and we’re taking on water and I’m despairing to what’s happening to the ship of state. But then I realize we are still afloat and we will get through this.”
There are a number of potential intelligence oversight reforms Congress could consider. While the main recommendation of the 9/11 Commission report – creating a joint committee or single intelligence committee in each chamber with combined authorizing and appropriating authorities – may be politically and practically impossible to implement, a range of other, less dramatic, measures (some endorsed by the Commission’s report) could still have the desired salutary effect on the process without the disruption of more radical reforms.
One option concerns how HPSCI functions, including empowering minority party members, ending term limits, and increasing staff resources. These proposed measures would have the effect of making the House model more akin to the Senate framework (which is unlikely to impress House members). However, these changes could significantly improve oversight and restore a modicum of bipartisanship on HPSCI.
Currently, HPSCI (as is the case for most other House committees) reflects the partisan membership ratio in the chamber. The majority party controls more seats, with its minority counterparts reduced to having only minimal effect on how the committee conducts its affairs. Now, this is obviously the House’s prerogative as the chamber’s character and traditions are quite distinct from the Senate. As a majoritarian body, the House has always been much more raucous, partisan, and intimately representative of the people’s passions and desires.
But given the high stakes of intelligence oversight, HPSCI should consider the Senate model by requiring that the majority never exceeds its representation by more than one vote no matter the overall membership ratio in the House. In addition, the ranking minority member should be elevated in status and become a vice chair. This may not be a panacea for HPSCI’s partisan ills, but recent history has shown that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) framework is much more conducive to bipartisan and serious oversight.
There are two other elements HPSCI can borrow from its Senate counterparts. First, HPSCI still imposes an 8-year term limit on its rank-and-file membership (waived for chair and ranking minority member) which is generally considered a self-imposed impediment to building subject matter expertise on intelligence issues among members. In keeping with the spirit of some of the 9/11 Commission recommendations, in 2004, the Senate adopted S.Res. 445 which abolished term limits for SSCI and implemented the so called “designee system” which leads us to the next reform that HPSCI should consider.
HPSCI should emulate the “designee” example from SSCI in order to better bolster their capacity with expert staff. The Senate committee has shrewdly increased capacity by garnering additional funding to hire professional staff members who serve as designated representatives for each member on the committee. So in addition to the core committee staff, each SSCI member has the luxury of having one dedicated intelligence staffer who can devote their time to issues of specific interest to the member.
Finally, intelligence oversight could be improved by appropriations reform, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission. Currently the bulk of intelligence funding is managed through the Defense Appropriations Subcommittees, which naturally focus their time and energy on the mammoth annual defense spending bill. A dedicated intelligence spending panel would elevate the significance of intelligence oversight in Congress while simultaneously improving the process by enabling members to better understand intelligence programs and budgets. Defense appropriators, however, will not take kindly to such a change as jurisdiction in Congress is everything.
It is no secret that service on the intelligence committees is often a thankless job. There are no clear electoral benefits to members, and the challenges seem to far outweigh any perceived positive effects. Former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden once famously quipped that “No member ever gets a bridge built or a road paved by serving on the intelligence committee. It is simply an act of patriotism.”
Wouldn’t it be nice then if serving the public good is also matched by a functional and highly competent oversight process?