As Congress mulls the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 commission, a battle is brewing over one reform that is regarded by commissioners as vital but which directly challenges the authority of the Appropriations committees.
The proposal would require lawmakers to make public the broad outlines of intelligence budgets — budgets that traditionally have been kept secret on national security grounds. The 9/11 commissioners envisioned the rule applying regardless of whether intelligence spending remains in the hands of House and Senate appropriators or whether it is turned over to the House and Senate Intelligence panels, as the commissioners have separately recommended.
Early analysis in some media coverage suggested that this recommendation, because it is relatively straightforward, might be among the easiest to implement. But it has been received coolly on Capitol Hill.
“Our people would be resistant to that. They don’t see the purpose,” said John Scofield, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. “Unless there’s a compelling reason to do it, I don’t see it happening here.”
Scofield said that intelligence numbers are kept secret so that the country’s enemies and potential adversaries do not become aware of significant shifts in priorities or funding. He noted that intelligence is the only area of spending in which every dollar is actually “programmed” — that is, put to specific use.
Privately, senior Congressional sources are even more dismissive toward the idea.
“I think that’s going to meet some fierce resistance on the Hill,” one GOP leadership aide said.
The aide noted that proposals to make intelligence budgets public have typically been popular among the most liberal Members of Congress. Since these lawmakers are not generally trusted on national security matters by the Republican majority in Congress, the idea of publicizing intelligence budgets has itself become suspect among many Republicans.
Members of the 9/11 panel, however, have been adamant about the need for Congress to adopt that particular recommendation.
“This is a real litmus test,” said former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a Republican member of the commission. “If they don’t make [the budgets] public, there won’t be any reform. It’s that simple.”
At root, the commissioners believe the secrecy that surrounds intelligence spending makes the budgets susceptible to political patronage and to manipulation by lobbyists and Members who want to promote parochial interests.
This problem also intersects with the nature of the spending committees themselves. Over time, their unique authority to disburse money has transformed appropriations panels into political beehives that hum with the give-and-take that determines who wins and who loses on Capitol Hill.
That role provides lawmakers who sit on these committees with a great deal of power — but only insofar as they are willing to exercise it for the benefit of colleagues and favored interests.
The 9/11 commissioners believe these interests can conflict with more pressing intelligence needs, such as the recruitment of translators in key language areas or the development of on-the-ground resources in regional hot spots.
Lehman cited what commissioners believe has been an over-emphasis on technology products that, not coincidentally, have powerful Congressional backers. Translators and on-the-ground capabilities “are areas that are underfunded while we get more satellites,” he said.
Exposing intelligence budgets to public scrutiny, Lehman said, would create pressure among appropriators to focus resources on intelligence weaknesses — or, at the very least, to prevent money from being shifted to less worthy areas.
“You’d have to have a pretty benign view of lobbyists to not see that there is an imbalance here,” Lehman said, reflecting on the priorities set by Congress in the most recent years.
In making its recommendations for improving Congressional oversight, the 9/11 commission, which included four former Members of Congress, focused heavily on ways to take authority over intelligence away from committees and lawmakers who may face conflicted priorities.
This can be seen perhaps most vividly in the proposal to vest the intelligence committees with power to both authorize and appropriate. It also can be seen in the recommendation that each chamber create a sole authorizing committee for the Homeland Security Department — with a lone appropriations subcommittee to handle homeland security spending. If adopted, that would strip Homeland Security oversight authority from a whopping 84 committee and subcommittee chairmen, by the commission’s estimate.
Subtler changes recommended in the report could have a similar effect, even if the commissioners did not say so explicitly. Recommendations that the intelligence panels be reduced in size, and that Members serve indefinite terms on those committees, were made partly in the interest of centralizing power — and thus accountability — over intelligence.
The quality of Congressional oversight, which commissioners described in their final report as “dysfunctional,” emerged as a key focus for the 9/11 panel over the course of the inquiry. Commissioners blame poor oversight for what they see as a failure to adapt the nation’s intelligence apparatus to new threats that emerged at the end of the Cold War.
But while both parties have signaled a willingness to fast-track the commission’s recommendations, the prospects for a complete overhaul of Congressional oversight — at least along the lines suggested by the commissioners — remains unclear. It is among the topics being discussed in the ongoing parade of committee hearings that were hastily organized after the commission released its report in late July.
Senior Congressional aides note the prerogatives of the legislative branch are typically the most difficult to reform. The picture is clouded further by the sheer breadth of the recommendations.
“The bar [that needs to be cleared] is doing enough so that it is perceived that something has been done,” said one senior Democratic aide.
The aide noted that most public and media attention quickly drifted to other elements of the commission’s report, such as proposals for a national intelligence director and a National Counterterrorism Center.
Given Congress’ built-in resistance to reforming itself, the aide suggested lawmakers might decide they can skip some of the recommended changes to Congressional oversight if the public believes that clear progress is being made on more visible recommendations that concern the executive branch.