Paul Pillar

The Importance and Limits of Congressional Oversight

In a column this week, David Ignatius urges Congress to implement recommendations for consolidating oversight over intelligence and homeland security, such as by creating a joint committee on intelligence or perhaps giving the existing intelligence committees jurisdiction over appropriations as well as authorization, as well as reducing the number of committees that claim part of the action on homeland security. Ignatius, who is one of the most knowledgeable journalists on intelligence matters, is right that Congressional changes along these lines would be an improvement. The improvement would be largely limited, however, to reducing the distracting burden of requiring senior officials to spend large amounts of time on Capitol Hill addressing the same issues before different committees. This distraction is most apparent and most costly whenever some crisis, failure, or salient incident occurs. At the very moment that these executive branch officials should be rolling up their sleeves and personally directing the response to whatever problem has arisen, they instead are called away from that task to spend long hours on the Hill. Streamlining committee structures or responsibilities would reduce this negative aspect of oversight.

Congressional oversight has an important positive role, especially regarding intelligence, but one that a change to committees would do little to enhance. That role is to ensure that lawmakers are on board with the methods practiced, and limits observed, by executive branch agencies and to see to it that those agencies change their operations if the lawmakers are not on board. It is a matter of keeping intelligence activities consistent with the values of the American people. Since all the people cannot be informed of activities that must remain secret, some of the representatives they have elected and who are appointed to the relevant committees function as surrogates for the public.

A more commonly perceived function of oversight is whip-cracking: riding herd on executive agencies that are seen as prone to screwing up if someone else isn't nagging them about their deficiencies. But this presumed function not only is unlikely to be changed by any rearrangement of committees; it is a function that barely gets performed at all, and is unlikely ever to be performed effectively. One reason is that it assumes a superior level of dedication and/or knowledge in the legislative branch over the executive branch. One can always find centers of lousy performance, of course, that would benefit from someone else poking into the center's business. But there is no general reason to presume that executive branch managers are any less motivated than members of Congress to try to conduct the nation's business well, and there is a plenty of reason to believe that they are more knowledgeable about their particular part of the nation's business.

A more fundamental reason this presumed oversight function will never get performed well is that Congress is not disposed to pay good, sustained, careful attention to just about anything. With members who are distracted by countless other matters, preoccupied with the hot issues of the day, and more interested in the politics than the substance of most issues, Congressional attention is highly episodic. Even on recognizably important issues, if there is no political percentage in going into the details of the issue, attention is scant. Work of the intelligence community on Iraq, for example, that Congress would later pick apart in excruciating detail after the Bush administration's war went sour got very little attention before the war began—and other work even more relevant to the later souring got no attention at all. It is usually only after, not before, a failure or flap that Congress gets engaged. And then it engages in, as Ignatius puts it, “finger-pointing and second guessing,” which is not to be confused with oversight.

The intensified partisanship on Capitol Hill has made the prospects for good oversight even worse. Over three decades of dealing with the House and Senate intelligence committees, I saw a marked increase in partisanship and with it a significant deterioration in the committees' effectiveness.

Yes, let us hope that Congress does what it can to improve its end of intelligence and homeland security. But don't get your hopes up about how much positive difference any changes that occur will make in how well Congress does its business, much less in how well the executive branch works.