The Sept. 11 commission's call for reforming congressional oversight of intelligence and homeland security faces powerful resistance in Congress, with some key lawmakers all but declaring it dead on arrival.
The widespread opposition emerged in interviews last week and could punch a big hole in the commission's agenda for making America safer against terrorism, even if Congress adopts its chief recommendations affecting the executive branch. The commissioners cautioned in their final report in July that the other reforms suggested -- including creation of a national intelligence director and counterterrorism center -- "will not work" without the change in congressional oversight.
Despite that warning, key legislators have given a frosty-to-dismissive reception to the bipartisan panel's two main proposals for improving congressional oversight of intelligence-gathering and homeland security operations: "Either Congress should create a joint committee for intelligence," the committee wrote, "or it should create House and Senate committees with combined authorizing and appropriations powers."
Granting one committee the dual powers of setting program priorities and spending levels is a radical idea in Congress, and many lawmakers are reacting with alarm. They say the commission's recommendations are misguided and would result in a restricted, less inquisitive oversight of intelligence and security matters.
The commission's recommendations would also force powerful committees, including Appropriations, Armed Services and Foreign Relations, to surrender some of their jealously guarded turf, although senior lawmakers say this is not their chief concern.
Currently, negotiations take place between leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees and authorizing committees to determine new and ongoing intelligence-gathering programs and recommended spending levels. But spending levels for human intelligence-gathering, spy satellites and all other activities are set by the House and Senate Appropriations committees.
Under one of the commission's suggestions, all of these activities would be consolidated under Congress's intelligence committees.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.), who met Wednesday with Bush and other congressional leaders to discuss outlines of a legislative package responding to the commission recommendations, said combining spending and authorizing powers in a new intelligence committee "is not part of this proposal."
Not only would he and fellow committee members resist the idea, Young said, but the newly named Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), has told colleagues that "he doesn't want to be an appropriator."
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was equally unreceptive. "I don't think it will fly," he said.
Key Democrats had similar views. Rep. John Murtha (Pa.), the second-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said of the proposal to combine authorizing and appropriating powers in one committee: "How does that work? . . . I just can't imagine" Congress accepting it.
Even lower-ranking appropriators who support the commission's suggestions see little hope. "Knowing appropriators, there's going to be tremendous problems with taking away appropriating powers," said Rep. David Vitter (R-La.). A well-placed GOP House aide, speaking on background because of the issue's political sensitivity, was more blunt, saying the recommendation "doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell."
Yet the Sept. 11 commission's alternative proposal -- combining the House and Senate intelligence committees into a single panel -- seems to be faring no better. "I haven't heard much interest in the joint committee idea," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
Young said the proposed single committee "would not be my preference." The House and Senate have too many differences and traditions, he said. "We operate under one set of rules," he said, "and the Senate operates under another."
Several lawmakers and staffers said the commission's report largely ignores important changes Congress made after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, such as creating a House committee on homeland security. Congress's oversight structure is adequate, they said, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon proved only that lawmakers must aggressively demand answers and accountability from executive branch officials.
Congressional leaders say they will seriously consider the commission's recommendations. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) recently named 22 of the 100 senators to a task force to recommend changes in intelligence oversight. The group's top Democrat, Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), told reporters Thursday: "Anytime you try to change the status quo as far as committees, it's very difficult. But I think people exaggerate how hard it is to change."
The Sept. 11 commission wrote that "few things are more difficult to change in Washington than congressional committee jurisdiction and prerogatives." But the commission's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, said in an interview Friday that he and his colleagues will not be content if Congress merely "tinkers around the margins" of its oversight structure.
Lawmakers do not have to adopt the report's precise remedies, but they must shake up the status quo, said Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana.
"Structural change is essential, because you must have budget authority to have effective oversight," he said. "What you have now is not working. . . . There's a lot more interest in Congress in reforming the executive branch than in reforming themselves."
Frist and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have given few signs of how far they would go to persuade colleagues to accept the commission's calls for change.
Frist recently said Congress can modify its committee structure, but "it's a tough issue, because in each case it involves a change or somebody has to give up something."
Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the speaker is keeping an open mind. But when the House created the homeland security committee, he said, it was "important to have authorization and appropriations separately, so you have redundancy. You improve oversight that way." Granting the two powers to a single intelligence committee, Feehery said, "would be very difficult. But we haven't make a final determination."
Murtha suggested that public indifference makes it easy for Congress to resist changes to its arcane, tradition-bound structures. "I haven't had one person at home ask me about this stuff," he said. "It's a Washington thing."
The commission's final report seemed to anticipate such comments. "The American people," it states, "may have to insist that these changes occur."