Congress Fails Pass Sept. 11 Commission Reforms

Congressional Efforts to Pass Sept. 11 Commission Reforms Fail (WaPo)

Congress on Saturday failed in its attempt to get legislation addressing the Sept. 11 Commission’s terror-fighting recommendations to President Bush, but Republican leaders said they would try to press the effort later this year. House Majority Leader Tom Delay said “Our members want us to continue, the speaker wants us to continue to negotiate and so does the Senate, so we’re going to continue to negotiate and see if we can get a bill in December.” However chance are unlikely if the House and Senate both leave Washington and end their post-election session. Delay said that Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., had not agreed to a compromise reached earlier Saturday and he wanted their approval before the House moved forward.

If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement his year, they will render moot three months of hearings and negotiations that started with the commission’s July release of its report studying the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Lawmakers would have to start from scratchnext year — if they even pick up the issue again.

Lawmakers thought they had a deal Saturday. “Give me a cigar,” said the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. He flashed a “V” for victory with his hand after signing off on the deal. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the lawmakers involved in the talks, said Bush had been in touch with negotiators by telephone from Chile, where he was attending a meeting of leaders from Asian and Pacific nations. Administration officials also said the president supported the compromise. The commission, a bipartisan group that sharply criticized the performance of intelligence agencies, also endorsed the emerging compromise. The deal “contains not only major reforms of the intelligence community, but significant measures to improve aviation and border security, and emergency preparedness and response,” the commission’s leaders, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, said in a statement.

But critics led by Hunter said the bill would interfere with the chain of military command and potentially place troops at risk in combat. Other opponents, including Sensenbrenner, were unhappy that the bill did not go further to change immigration laws. A final agreement on legislation has been held up for weeks while House and Senate negotiators wrangled over those issues, as well as how much control the new intelligence director should have over budget matters and whether terrorists should face stiffer penalties.

It’s unclear from the reporting whether this is a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good or rather it wasa wise avoidance of a hastily-considered bill. Clearly, the idea of merging all intelligence functions, including tactical level military intelligence, under a single civilian head was a bad recommendation. The 9-11 Commission had numerous big names on it, but few of them had any expertise in intelligence matters.

Indeed, I opposed the creation of the Commission to begin with because it needlessly delayed Congressional action on reform.

Update (11-21 0909): House Leadership Blocks Vote on Intelligence Bill [RSS] (NYT)

House Republican leaders blocked and appeared to kill a bill Saturday that would have enacted the major recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, refusing to allow a vote on the legislation despite last-minute pleas from both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to Republican lawmakers for a compromise before Congress adjourned for the year. The decision to block a vote on the landmark bill, which would have created the job of a cabinet-level national intelligence director to oversee the C.I.A. and the government’s other spy agencies, came after what lawmakers from both parties described as a near-rebellion by a core of highly conservative House Republicans aligned with the Pentagon who were emboldened to stand up to their leadership and to the White House.

The bill would have forced the Pentagon, which controls an estimated 80 percent of the government’s $40 billion intelligence budget, to cede much of its authority on intelligence issues to a national intelligence director. “What you are seeing is the forces in favor of the status quo protecting their turf, whether it is Congress or in the bureaucracy,” said Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who was the chief Senate author of the failed compromise bill, in what amounted to a slap at her Republican counterparts in the House. The chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, Thomas H. Kean, a Republican and the former governor of New Jersey, said that the lawmakers who blocked the vote should be held accountable by the public, and he blamed senior Pentagon officials as well. “I think there’s no question that there are people in the Pentagon who want the status quo, and they fought very hard with their allies in Congress for the status quo,” Mr. Kean said.

The decision to block a vote was announced by the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, who said that his members had determined that the bill hammered out by a House-Senate conference committee earlier in the day might dangerously dilute the authority of the military commanders over intelligence issues and could “endanger our troops in the field.” “It’s hard to reform; it’s hard to make change,” Mr. Hastert said, only hours after House and Senate negotiators ended a monthlong stalemate and announced their agreement. “We are going to keep working on this.” While Mr. Hastert said that the negotiations would continue and that as a result he would not formally adjourn the House for the year, many lawmakers said the action had effectively killed the legislation. Saturday was supposed to be the last day of business for the House and Senate in their so-called lame-duck session after the election, with many lawmakers not expected to return to Washington until January.

The decision to block a vote was seen by the bill’s proponents and others in Congress as a surprising embarrassment to the president, who had personally intervened as late as Friday night to pressure rebellious House Republicans to agree on an intelligence bill, and to Mr. Hastert, who had signaled that he wanted the legislation and was willing to overrule the opposition from within his ranks.

Congressional officials said that Mr. Bush had telephoned a leading Republican critic of the bill, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, from Air Force One on Friday en route to a economic summit meeting in Chile to urge him to compromise. They said a similar call was made Saturday morning by Mr. Cheney to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter of California, who has long warned that the creation of a national intelligence director could interfere with the military chain of command as American troops continue to fight in Iraq. But the calls were to no avail, since House and Senate negotiators agreed that the continuing opposition of Mr. Sensenbrenner, Mr. Hunter and a handful of other influential Republicans had tipped the balance for Mr. Hastert in deciding to block a vote.

Less than three weeks after Democrats suffered a stinging defeat at the polls, the bill’s failure could provide Democratic leaders with a political opening to argue – along with members of the Sept. 11 commission and the families of victims of the terrorist attacks – that House Republicans killed a bill that had widespread, bipartisan support and that would have allowed the government to protect the public better against terrorist threats.

Doing what’s politically expedient isn’t always in the best interests of the country. This is checks and balances at work. The White House and the Republican leadership in Congress are satisfied with getting credit for “serious intelligence reform” and perhaps insufficiently concerned about the nuts and bolts. It may well be that Sensenbrenner and Hunter are doing the right thing here.

I’m not familiar enough with the compromise bill to know whether it was a sufficient improvement over the simplistic reforms proposed by the 9-11 Commission. My guess, though, is that it was not. Doing a massive overhaul of our intelligence community during wartime is tricky business. We’ve got to make sure that we get it right.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.