Congress is Overwhelmed. Now What?

BOOK REVIEW: Congress Overwhelmed – The Decline in Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform

By Editors Timothy M. LaPira, Lee Drutman and Kevin Kosar / University of Chicago Press

Reviewed by Jason U. Manosevitz

The Reviewer – Jason U. Manosevitz is an officer in the Intelligence Community with 16 years of experience covering military and political issues in Asia and the Middle East, managing global coverage issues, and teaching analytic tradecraft. He is also a Studies in Intelligence Editorial Board Member.  All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the US Government.

BOOK REVIEW — What might congressional intelligence oversight look like if the authors of Congress Overwhelmed—The Decline in Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform are right and Congress reorganizes itself to concentrate power in committees vice parties?  It probably would look a little like intelligence oversight before the mid-1970 reforms, but not in the way most think about those early days.

The editors of Congress Overwhelmed, Timothy M. LaPira, Lee Drutman, and Kevin Kosar, lay out a stark argument. They state Congress is underperforming. And its capacity for carrying out its functions is in “sorry shape.” To back this up, they point to a decline in days spent in session, hearings held, bills passed, budgets adopted, and difficulty with reauthorization of popular, noncontroversial statues. They add that legislative staffing levels have fallen and that Members use precious time raising funds rather than “overseeing agencies, assessing program performance, investigating market failures, uncovering social problems, or studying the issues of the day that they were elected to resolve.”

Subsequent chapters expand on the Editor’s main point, covering changes in staff demographics, earlier congressional moves to enhance operational capacity, the rise and fall of legislative support agencies (think Congress Research Services), and snags in the legislative process. The authors are a combination of academics, think tank researchers, and practitioners and deliver a serious work that addresses the academic literature on Congress.

The authors define congressional capacity as organizational resources, expertise, time, space, and technology necessary for Congress to perform its constitutional role. They see the House of Representatives’ vote in January 2019 to create a bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress as an indicator that Congress may soon revamp its structure and reinvigorate its capacity so as to better check the executive. Congressional history supports their claim—Congress took similar actions before the Legislative Reforms Acts of 1946 and 1970, both of which had sweeping effects on how Congress functioned.

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Their analytic framework is intriguing. For them, the combination of organizational structure and capacity drives Congress’s ability to carryout its responsibilities, of which oversight is just one. They describe organizational structure as centralized or decentralized, controlled by political parties or congressional committees. Using a classic technique familiar to intelligence and business analysts alike, they create a four quadrant “map” of ideal types to explain and predict how Congress operates under different combinations of congressional organization and resources.

They further argue congressional organization is cyclical, revolving between party-centric and committee-centric structures, and that Congress is heading back to a decentralized system after a long period of party-centric centralization. Though they make a general argument about how Congress may evolve, a key question is how a committee-centric system would affect intelligence oversight. Our peacetime intelligence system was set up under a decentralized, strong committee system and intelligence oversight has evolved tremendously in a party-centric system. So a potential shift back to a committee-centric system should catch our attention.

The conventional wisdom on early congressional intelligence oversight is that it was a failure, landing somewhere between nonexistent and sporadic. But in fact, early congressional oversight of CIA was concentrated in four subcommittees under the House Appropriations, House Armed Services, Senate Appropriations, and Senate Armed Services Committees. Congress’s strong committee system allowed committee chairpersons to dominate. They chaired the CIA subcommittees, handpicked Members to serve, determined hearing schedules and agendas, drove oversight activities, and in some cases, were singularly privy to clandestine collection and covert operations. Under this system, Congress sponsored just two independent commissions to investigate CIA activities, both of which were in the 1950s before the CIA subcommittees established themselves. Moreover, these subcommittees rarely acknowledged publicly that they met, let alone how often.

Committee staff played significant roles. Starting in the late 1950s they served as primary go-betweens for committee chairpersons and the CIA, maintained day-to-day contact, helped set hearing agendas, received intelligence briefings, and aided budget requests funding development and use of clandestine collection platforms, like the U2 and early satellites. Staff expertise also helped institute requirements that enabled the CIA appropriations subcommittees to track covert action expenditures and reprogramming of funding.

Committee chairpersons also determined who beyond the CIA subcommittees could receive intelligence information. In the 1950s and 1960s, these subcommittees received a wide range of intelligence analysis from the CIA. Much of it covered Russian and Chinese political, economic, and military developments, the spread of Communism in Latin America and the Middle East, and of course the Vietnam War, including covert operations in Laos. They were also aware of many other covert operations and clandestine collection platforms. CIA subcommittee Members used and requested intelligence analysis to inform congressional actions, such as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and approval of multiyear defense programs and weapons development.

These committee chairpersons, however, routinely denied access to House and Senate committees handing foreign affairs. This often led to bitter infighting, with the four CIA subcommittees grudgingly granting periodic access. And though imperfect, the early years of intelligence oversight under a strong committee structure offer a glimpse into what may be ahead if the authors of Congress Overwhelmed are correct.

Even under a revitalized strong committee structure several features of today’s congressional intelligence oversight would likely remain. The select committees on intelligence would probably persist, even though Congress’s move in 1946 toward a committee-centric system led to a dramatic cut the number of standing committees. Public hearings with intelligence officials, annual intelligence authorization acts, and public knowledge of which Members serve on committees overseeing intelligence probably would not change. However, strong committee chairpersons would likely play a greater role in all of these activities and the number of closed-door hearings could rise, as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

A strong committee system would probably also bring back intense infighting among committees for jurisdiction over the intelligence agencies, including access to analysis and operations. While it would be difficult to claw back the access the foreign relations committees have today, other committees could suffer. The HPSCI and SSCI could end up arbitrating demands for access. One concern is how potential fights over access could play out. In the 1950s and 1960s those fights led to spurious press reports, ill-informed academic claims, and public complaints by Members that congressional oversight was a failure. This led not only to wild accusations of CIA wrongdoing, but also to an unfounded belief that Congress failed to oversee the intelligence agencies at all. A belief, I might add, that persists today despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Congressional capacity is generally seen as a tool for expanding a committee or subcommittee’s influence over an issue. Prior to the 1970s, at least some committee chairpersons restricted subcommittee staffing and resources to prevent subcommittees from driving their own agenda. But the CIA subcommittees had some staffing resources and they were used to great effect. Under a strong committee system, we could see similar dynamics. An increase in congressional resources could enhance Congress’s ability to check the executive branch, but strong committee chairpersons would decide how and when to use those resources. And of course, for what purposes.

A few years before sweeping changes in intelligence oversight in the 1970s, intelligence officers observed the House passing new rules governing the committee system and sensed that the intelligence oversight structure would soon change. They just did not know how. Congress Overwhelmed offers intelligence professionals a framework for assessing how congressional oversight could change and gives the broader public something to think about as Members consider options for ensuring an effective system of checks and balances.

Congress Overwhelmed earns a solid three out of four trench coats.


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