A Post-9/11 Report Card For Congress Shows Too Little Progress

Posted September 14, 2004 at 1:44pm

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 1,099 days — more time than the entire Kennedy presidency — have passed.

No Member of Congress who was on Capitol Hill that day will ever forget it. Beyond the general sense of horror and shock that every American felt, there were other emotions and feelings for lawmakers. [IMGCAP(1)]

One, as expressed so eloquently by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), was that sense of having literally dodged a bullet — the recognition that the smoke billowing from the Pentagon easily could have been emanating from the Capitol itself.

Another was the overwhelming sense of chaos. Members milled around the Hill for hours, not knowing where to go or what to do. Many stayed perilously close to the Capitol — not a wise move, but because no one directed them to go somewhere else. No signal came that morning to evacuate the Capitol grounds — even as orders were issued to the Old and New Executive Office Buildings, the Treasury Department and other agencies in the vicinity of the White House.

For a precious few Members — notably, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) — there also was a sickening feeling that if the Capitol had been hit that morning, the country would have been without a Congress for months, and at the worst possible time.

Now, 1,099 days later, it seems fair to examine and grade what Congress has done to grapple with a terrorist threat that is far more tangible and real than it seemed pre-9/11. What has it done to deal with its own vulnerability?

I am feeling generous this morning, so I will give the House and Senate each a D.

There have been a few steps taken that have kept the dreaded F at bay. Both houses have improved security around the Capitol grounds (so much so that many argue that the actions taken verge on overkill). There have been efforts to develop more effective evacuation plans (though the farcical chaos that ensued when Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s (R) plane violated Washington’s airspace suggest we still have a long way to go beyond an evacuation plan known as shouting, “Run for your lives!”). We now have some alternative meeting sites, and a kind of plan to make sure that each house of Congress can meet with the concurrence of the other, as the constitution mandates.

And that’s about it. The House took months before it even acknowledged that problems existed. The Speaker, dragged to the continuity-of-government table reluctantly, appointed — belatedly — a working group to deal with the issues, but he’s made it clear to the group that it should not recommend anything too meaningful.

The House jammed through a deeply flawed bill that expedites special elections after an embarrassingly partisan debate, and without any opportunity for amendments to improve it. Good-faith, nonpartisan efforts by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) to make it workable were rudely rebuffed.

Now, the House is on the verge of pushing through a rules change — unconstitutional on its face, and partisan besides — to redefine the quorum. And the House has done nothing for other continuity problems: presidential succession, the courts, and backup provisions if terrorists disrupt our elections.

The Senate, at least, is on a better path. Under the leadership of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, and with bipartisan support, including the estimable Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the Judiciary Committee is poised to pass a constitutional amendment already approved by the subcommittee that provides for emergency interim appointments to both houses if a catastrophe leaves large numbers of Members dead or incapacitated.

With leadership from Cornyn and Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the Senate Judiciary and Rules committees have held a hearing on reforming presidential succession, and are moving, albeit slowly, to grapple with that issue as well.

So why a D? First, because the Senate did even less than the House for more than a year following 9/11, and because is still moving too slowly given the threat.

Second, broader issues of homeland security and intelligence are now on the table in both houses in response to the 9/11 commission report and recommendations — and here, the performance of the Senate has been miserable, slightly more so than the House. And the chances of making the kinds of changes in Congressional structure and behavior that the commission has recommended are dismal.

The House at least created a Select Committee on Homeland Security. But the committee was set up to fail — it was given no substantive authority, and was stacked with chairmen of other committees who already had a piece of the Homeland Security pie to begin with and who are only concerned with protecting their own turf. The Senate, by contrast, created no committee — not even a powerless one.

To its credit, the House committee’s subcommittee on rules held some hearings in conjunction with the House Rules Committee — kudos here to Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) — on how to make the Homeland Security Committee meaningful. Building on the example of the Energy Committee created by Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) in 1977, the ideas included shared jurisdiction for important substantive areas such as immigration, animal- and plant inspection, and the Coast Guard. But these recommendations have gone nowhere: No way is the Speaker going to take on the chairs of Judiciary, Transportation, Agriculture and other major committees.

Despite longstanding recommendations to eliminate the term limits on members and to make the committee a primary assignment, neither chamber has done anything to make the Congressional Intelligence committees work better and more effectively.

The 9/11 commission has recommended either creating a single, joint intelligence panel or having each chamber merge the appropriations and authorization functions for intelligence into the existing intelligence committees. Each recommendation has a downside.

Here is an alternative: Make each Intelligence committee an exclusive committee without term limits, and have the chairmen and ranking members of the relevant Appropriations subcommittee serve ex officio on the Intelligence panels, while also having the Intelligence chairmen and ranking members serve reciprocally on the Appropriations subcommittee.

Unfortunately, there is no indication in either chamber of interest in doing any of these things — or, for that matter, anything else. In the Senate, an impressive, bipartisan group led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has pushed to implement the full panoply of 9/11 commission recommendations. It is a sign of our times that this step was met with withering contempt by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Most of the time, attention and hearings held in August were focused on the blockbuster commission recommendation to create a national intelligence director. This recommendation also has been on the table for a long time. Have the Intelligence committees held hearings on it in the past, or even seriously considered the problems in post-9/11 intelligence? No.

There is still time for this Congress to redeem itself, by acting on the Cornyn proposals and cleaning up its own act on homeland security and intelligence. The track record, however, does not suggest optimism.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.