Category Archives: Political Science

Where Was Obama? Why the Supercommittee Really Failed

Where was the President? That’s the question many pundits are asking in the aftermath of the congressional supercommittee’s highly publicized failure to reach an agreement by today’s deadline to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit.  As the clocked ticked down to the final two weeks of negotiations between Republican and Democratic legislators, Obama was overseas on a 9-day meet-and-greet trip with foreign dignitaries.  He returned this past Sunday, just as breaking news stories reported the imminent failure in the supercommittee negotiations.  Rather than intervene to broker a last-minute agreement, however, Obama instead stood by as the budget clock for what many described as the last, best chance to negotiate a deficit reduction package wound down.

The President’s decision not to intervene was merely his final act in a three-month budget deficit drama that saw him content to play a minor role, if that. Although not formally part of the supercommittee’s deliberation, Obama did propose his own $3.6 trillion reduction package early in the deficit negotiations. Thereafter, however, Obama appeared to remove himself from the debate, choosing instead to focus on stumping for his jobs legislation, despite clear signs that it does not have the votes to pass Congress.  By all accounts, he had few contacts with any of the supercommittee members, particular on the Republican side, and seemed content to let the gang of 12 legislators squabble among themselves without any effort to interject himself into negotiations.

As the talks collapsed, many critics characterized Obama’s lack of participation as a significant failure of leadership.   New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg captured these sentiments when he chastised the President for failing to intervene: “The president as the chief executive of the country has the responsibility to make things come together. I understand the problem of partisanship. And the jealousies and the pettiness and selfishness that occur at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But in the end, no CEO would send a proposal and just say, well, let’s see what happens. You sent a proposal and then you go fight for it.”

Rather than a failure to lead, however, Obama’s behavior suggests he has learned a valuable political lesson from this past summer’s highly contentious debt default negotiations.  You will recall that the nation teetered on the brink of debt default until Obama negotiated a last-minute increase in the debt ceiling, paired with a budget agreement that pleased almost no one, but which passed with bipartisan support from mostly moderates in the House and Senate. That agreement, in addition to cutting federal spending by $2.4 trillion and increasing the debt ceiling by an amount sufficient to last beyond the 2012 elections, also created the supercommittee and charged it with finding an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by today’s deadline.  Rather than reap any political windfall for negotiating a budget deal and averting the debt default, however, Obama instead found himself excoriated by party purists on both the Right and Left.  Progressives in a particular were vehement in their belief that Obama had sold out party principles.  Many thought he should have invoked the 14th amendment to justify raising the debt ceiling without the need for congressional approval, and then stood strong against Republican objections, even if it meant a constitutional crisis.  Instead, they argued, Obama folded (once again!) like a cheap suit.

Almost four months later, Obama faced another negotiating deadline.  Clearly he drew the appropriate lesson from this past summer’s debt ceiling debate: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… . Given the failure to reap any rewards within his own party base for finding common ground with Republicans last August, what possible benefit would it have been for Obama to interject himself once again into what was certainly going to be a replay of those negotiations?  Indeed, with the 2012 election four months closer, and his reelection prospects still no better than 50/50, and this time with no immediate consequences for a failure by the supercommittee to reach an agreement (already Republicans are threatening to rewrite the “automatic cuts” to defense), it made absolutely no sense for Obama to wade into this fight.  Reaching the $1.2 trillion target almost certainly would require significant entitlement reform that would have surely provoked a chorus of cries from the party faithful that Obama had again sacrificed progressive principles on the altar of bipartisan agreement.

Before condemning the President for an ostensible lack of leadership, critics should instead focus on the true culprit behind his decision not to intervene: the purists in his own party who make it so difficult for him to negotiate any concessions that are a necessity for achieving a bipartisan deficit deal.  As long as the Democratic Left would prefer principle to compromise, it makes little sense for Obama to risk his political capital in another round of contentious budget negotiations.  He realizes as well as anyone that the shepherd cannot lead if the flock refuses to follow.

This was not a failure to lead – it was a choice driven by political necessity dictated by his own party faithful.

Why The Failure Of The Supercommittee Is Not A Bad Thing

If media reports are correct, it appears that the congressional “supercommittee” will fail to reach its midnight Monday deadline to specify how it would trim at least $1.2 trillion from the budget deficit during the next decade.

This is probably a good thing.

(Technically, the committee has until Wednesday to reach agreement, but any plan has first to be on the table for 48 hours for review and to allow the Congressional Budget Office time to “score” the proposal.)  The immediate reason for the failure is that, in an election year, the purported cost of not reaching a deal pales in comparison to the political price both sides calculate they would pay at the polls come November if they actually negotiated a substantive compromise that really reduced the deficit.  Instead, both sides are gambling that they will be better positioned to negotiate a year from now.

In my view, this is a gamble worth taking.  What’s that, you say?  How can the decision to postpone a deficit reduction be good news? A bit of background is in order: you will recall that the 12-member bipartisan congressional committee was created as part of the negotiation that ended, at least for the moment, last summer’s debt default crisis. Under the agreement, the supercommittee, composed equally of six House Representatives and six Senators, was supposed to develop a deficit reduction plan by this Wednesday.  Assuming at least 7 of the 12 committee members agreed, that plan would then go to the full Congress to face a simple up-or-down majority vote in each chamber by December 23, with no option to amend the bill or filibuster it in the Senate. If Congress voted down the plan, automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion, divided equally between defense and non-defense programs, would kick in.  Crucially, however, those non-defense spending cuts would not touch the biggest budget busters: Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and veterans’ benefits.  At the same time, there is a growing sentiment that deep cuts in defense spending are politically untenable at this moment.  Obama’s own defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has been quietly signaling the administration’s desire to renegotiate the defense budget targets.

And that’s why the plan was never likely to work.  Under the original agreement creating the supercommittee, the automatic deficit reduction plan would not kick in until January, 2013 – or until after the 2012 elections. Under that timetable, neither side really had any incentive to cut a deal, since they could avoid making hard choices and suffering the associated political costs until after facing the voters.  Remember, unlike during the debt default debate, a failure here triggers neither a government shutdown nor a debt default and a drop in the nation’s credit rating.  So, for most members it is easier to point fingers at the other side, knowing full well that the “automatic” procedures will then kick in to “force” across the board budget cuts that may be cuts in name only.  Each side can then play the blame game heading into November, and then use the election results as a referendum with which to replay the budget debate.

With hindsight, we should not be surprised that Congress’ effort to legislate by, in effect, tying their own hands, has not worked. Congress has a history of failed efforts to institute internal procedures designed to force them to pull the trigger on hard political choices that they were otherwise unwilling to undertake.  Think back, for example, to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings (GHR) act Congress passed and Ronald Reagan signed into law in the 1980’s in order to curb burgeoning deficits.  The procedure, passed in 1986 and revised after a constitutional challenge in 1987, mandated across-the-board budget cuts (sequestration) if Congress and the President failed to reach agreement on budget reduction targets. For the first few years after passage Congress was able to jerry rig the deficit accounting process to avoid triggering the automatic cuts, but by 1990 when it appeared that no amount of creative bookkeeping could avoid sequestration, Congress instead negotiated a new budget agreement with President Bush that served as a crucial down payment on deficit reduction.  That ultimately led, when followed by the Clinton tax increases, to short-lived budget surpluses.  (Not incidentally, by breaking his no new taxes pledge, the 1990 budget agreement also was a significant factor in Bush’s defeat in 1992).

The point, and it is one that Newt Gingrich delights in making on the stump, is that no effort by Congress to make hard choices through automatic procedures is likely to succeed if Congress lacks the political will to enforce the agreement.  And in the case of the supercommittee, it is quite clear that both Democrats and Republicans would prefer, in an election year, to bear the political recriminations of failing to reach a deal over actually making difficult choices that would almost certainly alienate key elements in their respective political coalitions.  One needs only to turn on the television, and see the paid political advertising by groups like the AARP, which is threatening electoral retribution on any member of Congress who touches Medicare benefits, to understand why the supercommittee was only too glad to put off making difficult decisions.

My point here is not to say the parties negotiated in bad faith, or that the entire process was a charade. In fact, I think members in both parties hoped that they might get the other side to see it their way, at least enough to come to some type of agreement.  And, in truth, both sides were willing to make significant concessions.  Democrats agreed to make some budgets cuts, and Republicans did, if media leaks are to be believed, agree to some revenue increases, albeit primarily through changing the tax code. There were even reports that both sides had agreed on a plan to means-test Social Security benefits. But ultimately the ideological divide which undergirds Republican’s resistance to tax hikes and Democrat’s opposition to cuts in entitlement programs proved too big to bridge under the current political climate. No legislative procedure could overcome that political reality.

To be sure, both sides may yet negotiate a smaller face-saving agreement.  On Friday, Republicans reportedly floated a smaller $640 billion deficit reduction package that includes some revenue increases, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Democrats leak their own mini-reduction package in response.  But I would be shocked if both sides suddenly agree to a plan that meets the $1.2 trillion target and avoids triggering the automatic cuts.

If, as I expect, the supercommittee fails to reach an agreement, both sides will engage in full-scale damage control and finger pointing, and the media will doubtless partake in another bout of handwringing about our “dysfunctional” Congress. But while that plays well with the public, I think it is probably the wrong message to take from the supercommittee’s failure. The debate over the budget is really a debate over political values and the future direction of the nation’s budgetary policy.  It is not a debate that should be resolved by legislative gimmicks that allow members of Congress to avoid making hard choices, and from being held accountable for those choices by the voters.  And, in fact, in the next several months legislators will face several more difficult decisions, including whether to extend unemployment benefits and whether to allow payroll tax cuts now in place to expire. In the meantime, legislators from both parties now have an opportunity to prepare their case in the run up to what is shaping up to be the most consequential national election in several decades.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the 2012 elections will send an unambiguous signal regarding how to address the nation’s budgetary woes. In the 2010 midterm elections, however, we saw how a grass-roots Tea Party movement rooted in opposition to government bailouts, increased spending and growing deficits produced one of the biggest partisan reversals in the post-World War II era.  More recently, similar anti-corporate sentiments spawned the “occupy Wall St.” movement which may yet develop into a potent electoral force.  Who knows how these sentiments will play out in 2012? With so much at stake, I’d rather take my chances with the electoral process than have members of Congress hide behind legislative gimmicks designed to provide political cover.

The supercommittee (apparently) has failed.  Let the real debate begin!

Media Bias, the Debates, and Why Jon Huntsman Is In Siberia

The recent controversy regarding whether CBS deliberately limited Michelle Bachmann’s participation in Saturday’s Republican debate once again highlights the crucial role the media plays in winnowing the candidate field during the months prior to the actual start of voting for candidate delegates.  As proof of CBS’ “liberal bias”, Bachmann’s camp pounced on the advertent release of an email sent by CBS news director John Dickerson  to his colleagues suggesting they get someone else to interview after the debate since Bachmann was not a front-runner in the race for the nomination. Dickerson noted that Bachmann was “not going to get many questions” in the debate and that “she’s nearly off the charts” in polling, trailing the frontrunners.

As it turned out, in Saturday’s debate, Bachmann did not get her first question until 15 minutes into the event, and she did not get any follow-up questions, which was in marked contrast to how frontrunners Cain, Gingrich, Romney and Perry were treated.  For Bachmann and her supporters – who have clashed with the media before – this is simply additional evidence of CBS’ liberal slant showing; the news organization is trying to limit coverage of the more conservative Republican candidates. Nor is Bachmann  the only candidate to make this charge – the Paul camp has consistently complained that despite Paul’s fundraising prowess and early victories in straw polls, the media refuses to grant him top-tier status.  And anyone who watches these debates knows that Rick Santorum almost always complains that he isn’t getting enough questions.  Each of these candidates understands that, in this period of the invisible primary, media expectations can become self-fulfilling.  If you get fewer questions, you get less exposure, and are deemed less viable, which affects your polling, which in turn hurts fundraising, which further depresses media coverage.  And at some point you are permanently relegated to second-tier purgatory. .

So, are these candidates right?  Is a liberal media trying to winnow them from the field?  I’ve addressed issues of media bias many times before.  There’s no doubt that the majority of journalists, print and electronic, working in the national press have political views that lean left.  Occasionally their personal views spill over into the news coverage, although I think a bigger bias is what I call the structural bias exhibited by news organizations that are, in the end, profit-making enterprises that must attract a viewing audience.

But I don’t think Bachmann is correct in asserting that CBS’ liberal bias is driving their decision to focus on the frontrunners.  As evidence, note that the most liberal Republican, Jon Huntsman, also received second-class treatment in Saturday’s debate.  At one point in the debate Huntsman – echoing sentiments undoubtedly felt by Paul, Bachmann and Santorum – complained that “It gets a little lonely over here in Siberia from time to time.”

Rather than liberal bias, what is driving the media coverage is the difficulty in covering 8 candidates in equal depth.  Faced with a nearly impossible task, journalists need to make choices, and their decisions are driven by the dictates governing the news business more generally: where’s the news?  If all indications are that Bachmann is polling in single-digits, then she’s not likely to win the nomination, and thus her remarks are deemed less newsworthy.  One need not resort to charges of political bias to understand why the media wants to see this field winnowed down to two-to-three candidates.  And I can understand the sentiment.  As one who has watched almost every Republican debate this campaign season, I can tell you that the logistics of making sure all eight candidates have their say creates problems, not least of which is that none of the candidates can say very much in any single answer.

 So, how does a second-tier candidate get out of Siberia?  By emulating Newt Gingrich’s strategy.  It is easy to forget that not too long ago Gingrich was also languishing in loserville, all but written off by the national press.  But he used the debates to resurrect his candidacy.  He did so by understanding how to make his points using succinct catch phrases or referencing iconic symbols that resonated with Republican voters’ views, and by sprinkling in a steady barrage of barbs aimed at every Republicans’ favorite whipping boy: the liberal media.  As an example, here’s how he responds to a question during Saturday’s debate on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program:

“GINGRICH:  First of all, abs — maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable. Second, maximum…


GINGRICH:  — maximum coordination with the Israelis in a way which allows them to maximize their impact in Iran.

GINGRICH:  Third, absolute strategic program comparable to what President Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher did to the Soviet Union, of every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down. And I agree entirely with Governor Romney.  If in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon.”

Note what he’s done here.  The answer is short, and entertaining, and it includes references indicating he supports Israel, and implies that his policy would have the support of those Republican icons Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher who, by following a similar strategy, brought down the Soviet Union!  (See, it works!)  As icing on the cake, he obeys Reagan’s 11th commandment by praising the answer by his chief rival Mitt Romney.  This is vintage Gingrich, and by dint of repeated answers like this, he has charted a slow but steady rise in the polls.  (I need not take the time here to remind you that I cautioned long ago not to write Gingrich off, so don’t say you weren’t warned!)

Look, I understand Bachmann’s frustration, and that of Santorum, Huntsman and Paul.  Media coverage is biased against them.   The bias reflects the difficulty of covering eight candidates in the depth they deserve.  So the media makes choices that inevitably favor some candidates over others.  If I want to get out of Siberia, however, it is not going to help much by complaining that it’s too cold there. Instead, Bachmann needs to strap on her skis, harness the sled dogs, and start moving to warmer climes, either by charting her own trail or following Gingrich’s path.  And she’d better hurry.


United Flight 93 and the Limits of Presidential Power

The 10th year anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks reminded Americans once more of the heroism of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.  Those passengers, it will be recalled, overpowered their hijackers and almost certainly prevented the flight from reaching its intended target: the Capitol building.  One of the more remarkable revelations that came out of the recent media coverage of the 9-11 anniversary is that the two National Guard pilots initially scrambled from Andrews Air Force base with orders to intercept the doomed Flight 93 took to the air essentially unarmed. Lacking the firepower necessary to take down the civilian aircraft, the pilots were prepared to ram the plane in what some journalists labeled a “kamikaze” mission.

Although this revelation received widespread media coverage, the more important story  regarding those military flights, and of the shoot-down orders more generally, as revealed in the definitive report issued by 9-11 Commission (formally the National Commission on Terrorist Strikes Upon the United States) has not received nearly the coverage it deserves. And it is another reminder of just how limited the power of the presidency is – even at the height of a national emergency.

When the 9-11 attacks occurred, standard orders required the permission of the President and Secretary of Defense to shoot down civilian aircraft.  The directive was based on the not unrealistic assumption that in the typical hijacking there would be some time to assess the situation. That is, there would be no effort by the hijackers to try to hide the plane, never mind convert it into a suicide weapon. At the worst, it was presumed that a hijacked plane might be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction.  As we know, those assumptions proved disastrously incorrect.  In fact, the hijackers on all four plans turned off the transponders by which the FAA identified aircraft on radar screens.  The result is that even when the civilian authorities notified the military that suspected hijackings were underway they could not tell them where the planes were. Following standard operating procedures, the fighter planes flew to designations off the coast while waiting for information regarding the location of the hijacked planes.

In the confusion that followed, efforts to work through the chain of command were hampered by poor communications between key decisionmakers and a basic lack of information, not least regarding how many planes were hijacked and where they were located.   In recreating the sequence of events from that fateful day, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney recalled an initial conversation, which the 9-11 commission estimated took place at about 10 a.m., or roughly one hour and 15 minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, during which Bush authorized Cheney to give orders for the military to shoot down any civilian airliner that did not respond to commands.  However, the documentation for this initial conversation is sketchy, leading some to argue that Cheney went ahead and issued shoot down orders shortly after 10 on his own, and then retroactively sought the President’s authorization.  It is clear from the records the Bush gave (re)authorization for a civilian shootdown in a second (or perhaps initial) conversation with Cheney at about 10:23.  By this time the fourth and final hijacked plane, Flight 93, had already crashed, although no one in the military chain of command knew this.

Conspiracy theorists, of course, have long speculated that the military actually did shoot Flight 93 down, which made the recent revelations that the initial interceptors were unarmed all the more significant. But the real story is actually far more interesting because, for all the debate regarding who really authorized the shootdown of civilian flights, the reality is that the military never relayed that order to the first interceptors that went up.  The military received word of the hijacking at 8:37, and the first interceptors were ordered scrambled out of Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts at 8:46, just as American 11 struck the North Tower.  As it turned out, the 9 minutes of warning was the most the military would have with any of the hijacked flights; military air defense had no advance warning on the three others flights before they crashed.

The President and Vice President had no way of knowing this of course.  At 10:31, through means still not entirely clear, the shootdown order from the President was disseminated through the North American (NORAD) air defense military chain of command when, according to the Commission report, “General Larry Arnold instructed his staff to broadcast the following over a NORAD instant messaging system: ‘10:31 Vice president has cleared to us to intercept tracks of interest and shoot them down if they do not respond per [General Arnold].’”

This simple, direct order from the commander in chief at a time of a military emergency caused – again quoting the 9-11 commission – “considerable confusion over the nature and effect of the order.”  And it was not passed along.  That’s right. The President’s direct order, relayed through the Vice President authorizing the shooting down of civilian airliner was never passed on to the pilots in the air.  Here’s the key passage from the 9-11 Report:

“The NEADS commander told us he did not pass along the order because he was unaware of its ramifications. Both the mission commander and the senior weapons director indicated they did not pass the order to the fighters circling Washington and New York because they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance. In short, while leaders in Washington believed that the fighters above them had been instructed to “take out” hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the pilots were to “ID type and tail.”

But what about the second group of interceptors launched from Andrews air force base – the ones on a “kamikaze” mission?  Surely they had shoot-down orders?  No, they did not.  In fact, they were not even scrambled under NORAD order. As the 9-11 Commission explains: “The Vice President was mistaken in his belief that shootdown authorization had been passed to the pilots flying at NORAD’s direction. By 10:45 there was, however, another set of fighters circling Washington that had entirely different rules of engagement.”  Those fights had been launched at 10:38 from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in response to information passed to them by the Secret Service – not NORAD command.  But rather than take the air with orders to shoot, they instead operated under “weapons free-a permissive rule of engagement.” The local commander, General David Wherley was told to “send up the aircraft, with orders to protect the White House and take out any aircraft that threatened the Capitol. General Wherley translated this in military terms to flying “weapons free”-that is, the decision to shoot rests in the cockpit, or in this case in the cockpit of the lead pilot. He passed these instructions to the pilots that launched at 10:42 and afterward.”

In effect, then, the decision whether to shoot down the civilian airliner was the pilots to make – the President’s clear directive notwithstanding. Of course, neither Bush nor Cheney even knew that fighters had been scrambled out of Andrews – that order came from the Secret Service and therefore fell outside the military chain of command.

It is tempting to think that, in a crisis situation that involves national security, ultimate authority lies solely with the President.  Surely the President feels the weight of responsibility in these situations more keenly than anyone else.  In a sense, when national survival is at stake, he comes closest among all elected officials to embodying national sovereignty. The mistake – one that even presidential scholars are susceptible to – is in thinking this heightened sense of urgency increases his actual power to control events.  Alas, the President’s ability to fulfill his constitutional obligations still depends on the actions and judgments of score of individuals, both civilian and military who, although ostensibly in the direct line of command leading to the President, nonetheless must make, often under conditions of intense pressure and with limited information, their own judgments regarding how to respond to the President’s orders.  That is, they view his orders from their own vantage points, and act accordingly.  It is why even in the most urgent matters of national security, presidents rarely can be said to exercise command authority.  And in more mundane matters, the idea that presidents act “unilaterally” is more myth than reality.

And what of United Flight 93?  Given the confusing response to the President’s shootdown orders, it seems the debt we owe to the heroism of the passengers and crew on that flight on September 11, 2001, is even greater than many of us had perhaps realized.   Had they not acted, there’s no certainty anyone else would have been in a position to bring down that plane.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated an incorrect time for the first strike on the World Trade Center.  In fact, the north tower was struck by American Flight 11 at 8:46 a.m. I have corrected the timeline in the post above.

What Congress Can Do To Make The Nation Safer

We tend to believe it is the President, and those working for him in the executive branch, who shoulder the primary burden of protecting the nation against terrorist attack.  Certainly presidents feel that responsibility most acutely.  Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, it was the failures of executive branch agencies – most notably in the intelligence community – that attracted the most scrutiny.  In its comprehensive analysis of the terrorist attacks, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (better known as the 9/11 commission) focused much of its recommendations on restructuring the intelligence community and strengthening border security.  That led to the consolidation of some 22 government departments and agencies into a single Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the creation of a National Counterterrorist Center, headed by a Director of National Intelligence. I have written extensively about the limits of these organizational reforms.

Less well remembered, however, are the 9-11 Commission’s recommendations regarding Congress.  Most notably, it pointed to the fragmented nature of the congressional committee system as a key weakness in the nation’s ability to prevent another attack, and recommended that the congressional oversight of homeland security be strengthened by consolidating the number of committees with oversight responsibility. As the 9-11 commission members wrote: “Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need. The United States needs a strong, stable, and capable congressional committee structure to give America’s national intelligence agencies oversight, support, and leadership.”

A decade later, this key recommendation has been observed mainly in the breach. Indeed, rather than a consolidation, the number of congressional committees and subcommittees claiming some jurisdiction over homeland security has mushroomed, from some 88 a decade ago to more than 100 today.  Many of these committees, such as Agriculture, Judiciary or Small Business, have only tangential relevance, if that, to homeland security.  Why hasn’t Congress complied with the 9-11 commission recommendations?   As the commission itself noted, “To a member, these assignments are almost as important as the map of his or her congressional district.”  Committees provide a jurisdictional platform from which a member of Congress can hold hearings, maintain a public profile and generally maximize those activities designed to bolster electoral support back home.   Members are loathe to give up this base of power.  The result is that, although both chambers of Congress moved quickly after 9-11 to create a single committee of Homeland Security in conjunction with the creation of the DHS, existing committees were reluctant to cede their oversight relations with the almost two dozen executive agencies from which the DHS was formed.  So although the homeland security committee in each chamber exercises primary jurisdiction over the DHS, dozens of other (sub)committees also claim some oversight responsibility

Why does this matter?  Most of what top officials at DHS do is testify before Congress. That process becomes much more time consuming and complex when that testimony is spread across multiple committees.  More significantly, when many committees are charged with oversight, none is truly in charge, and the chain of accountability is weakened.

Two days ago, Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9-11 commission, along with Tom Ridge, who served as the first Homeland Security director under President George W. Bush, appeared before the House’s Homeland Security Committee chaired by Republican Peter King.  If you listen to the testimony, you’ll find that it focuses almost exclusively on the failure of the DNI to serve as an effective point of coordination for the intelligence community, as well as overlapping jurisdictions at the state and local level in responding to national emergencies. Conspicuous in its absence is any mention of the lack of coordination within the congressional committee oversight system.

This is not because members of Congress and those testifying before them don’t recognize the problem. Instead, it is because, as Hamilton has acknowledged, resistance to change among members of Congress makes it unlikely that any reform will take place. “When you’re talking about changing jurisdictions, you’re talking about taking power away from some committees,” Hamilton said. “That is a very difficult thing to do in Congress because the name of the game is power, and people don’t like to give it up.”

To give one example, our own Vermont Senator Pat Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refuses to give up his committee’s oversight of DHS because the agency deals in part with immigration issues that fall under Judiciary’s jurisdiction. Similar arguments are made by his colleagues in both chambers to justify holding onto their own slice of the oversight pie.  Collectively, however, this fragments bureaucratic accountability, complicates the DHS’s job and generally does nothing to strengthen anti-terrorism efforts.

As we mark the 10-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, members of Congress will undoubtedly use their committees and subcommittees as platforms to investigate how well the executive branch has responded to the terrorism threat.  Ironically, the sheer number of these hearings is evidence that Congress has yet to deal with its own organizational weaknesses in the War on Terror.