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Panel That Folded in 1977 Is Suddenly Hot Again

It was a committee that included Members from both chambers and both parties. It met in closed session and wrote bills that shaped U.S. atomic-energy policy from the end of World War II through the darkest days of the Cold War.

Now, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy — which folded in 1977 and had been forgotten by all but the hardiest government-management aficionados — is being presented by the 9/11 commission as the model for a future House-Senate intelligence panel.

Commission members believe the current committees “lack the power, influence and sustained capability” to handle the oversight needed for the intelligence community. Instead, they urge a panel that concentrates authorization and spending powers — as well as expertise — in one place. And that means looking back to the Joint Atomic Energy panel.

“It had a lot of prestige. It had a lot of power,” said Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission.

The Atomic Energy panel was formed in 1946 amid strong concerns over how to harness nuclear technology after the war. Congress wanted to find an efficient way to discuss the sensitive issues surrounding atomic power in closed session, while keeping prudent distance from the executive branch.

The effort was helped along by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, which for the first time provided Members and committees with professional staff. Until then, Congress had relied on information from executive branch departments and agencies when formulating policy — a situation that presented a conflict between the watchdog and the watched.

“They certainly had the staff, the manpower and the authority” they needed, Senate Historian Richard Baker said of the joint committee.

Other Congressional experts suggest that joint committees could never be effective in today’s environment.

In the past few decades, each chamber sought to reclaim for itself the authority that had been handed over to joint House-Senate panels. The few that remain, including the Joint Economic Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation, play virtually no role in the legislative arena.

“Nobody wants to serve on a joint committee. They sort of become the red-headed stepchild,” one senior Senate GOP aide said. “Even the Joint Atomic [Energy] Committee from years ago wasn’t really that effective.”

A joint committee for intelligence would actually “weaken oversight, not strengthen it,” the aide said.

Fully expecting opposition from Capitol Hill, the commission said in its report that separate House and Senate intelligence panels would also be acceptable as long as they combined both authorizing and appropriating power. The commission also recommended that such committees be made smaller and that Members serve indefinitely once they are appointed.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.