Sunday :: May 2, 2004

Checks And Balances Missing In Action

by Mary

When the founding fathers created the US Constitution, they carefully devised a frame of checks and balances which were supposed to limit the ability of any one group to govern without some limits to their power. Lately, though, the institutional checks have become increasingly ineffective and one party rule and control has created a big brother government that looks more like the one pictured by George Orwell in 1984 than what our founding fathers tried to create.

Today, we know that the media is a weak and toothless lion which prefers to dwell in trivia and celebrity scandal than actually investigate and discomfort the government. As Daily Howler so aptly points out, many in the media don't think it is their role to question the RNC talking points.

IGNATIUS: In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn’t create a debate on our own.

Then there are the Supreme Court and many appeals court judges who believe they need to defer to the President whenever they hear that a matter before them concerns national security. Never mind that the original founders would never have approved this abdication of their role in reviewing and restraining executive overreach.

And Tom Delay has shown that the lower house can be run like a dictatorship, no rules except the ones he wants and as long as it promotes his clients and the White House. There is certainly no check on his little fiefdom.

Congressional oversight is one of the principle responsibilities of our elected representatives, but even that role is one our representatives are incapable of doing well. Consider the Senate Intelligence Committee and the inability of the members to sufficiently review the workings of the intelligence agencies. Because the material that comes before the Intelligence Committee is classified, the Senators have to do their own reading and investigations. For most of them, this is beyond their capability. Just as Bush gets the executive summary for his intelligence briefings, the Senators also look to the Readers Digest version for their information.

In the fall of 2002, as Congress debated waging war in Iraq, copies of a 92-page assessment of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction sat in two vaults on Capitol Hill, each protected by armed security guards and available to any member who showed up in person, without staff.

But only a few ever did. No more than six senators and a handful of House members read beyond the five-page National Intelligence Estimate executive summary, according to several congressional aides responsible for safeguarding the classified material.

The lack of congressional attention to the nitty-gritty details of Iraq's weapons programs is symptomatic of Congress's approach to a range of intelligence matters, according to current and former intelligence committee members and a broad swath of intelligence experts.

Responsibility for congressional oversight is vested in the House and Senate select committees on intelligence, which get daily classified reports from the intelligence agencies and annually review and approve the intelligence budget. But as described by former members and outside experts, the committees' performance in oversight and investigations has deteriorated.

"The oversight is still by and large feckless and episodic," said Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia professor who has written extensively on the subject. "September 11 was an intelligence failure, but it's also a policy failure, not only in the White House but in Congress. There's really a heavy onus on these intelligence committees to probe what's going on."

The committees' role in oversight and investigations "has almost gone away," said former representative Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a committee member for three years and now a member of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "You're so busy with the budget and keeping up with daily events."

This story is yet one more example of how sick our democratic institutions are and how little of the real checks and balances are left to keep our government in check. How easy it was to convince the Senators to go to war based on lies because they couldn't take the time to at least look at the evidence. What else are they overlooking?

[Aside: Dana Priest's article in the WaPo goes on to say that the Senators agreed that the CIA's budget had been cut back so much that it was unable to deliver good intelligence. This is a questionable assertion because the secret budget has always been so large, the problem is spending the money wisely. How many billions have gone down ratholes because no one is responsible for reviewing the expenditures?]

Mary :: 1:22 AM :: Comments (6) :: Digg It!