By Glenn Ellmers
If congressional Republicans are going to reform the FBI and the national security state—which is something they should do—they need to understand the real source of the problems.
The last thing we need is another Church Committee.
I respect Darren Beattie and Steve Bannon—two of the most prominent voices citing the reforms undertaken by Congress in the 1970s as a precedent for congressional action today.
They are, however, missing a key point: what Congress did 50 years ago did not fix any problem; it created this problem. The outrageous partisanship and misuse of power we’ve seen over the last few years from the intelligence community and the Justice Department are exactly what Congress intended in the 1970s.
Of course, the investigations undertaken by Congress after Watergate—led in part by the late Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), whose name is now associated with this whole episode—certainly did expose many abuses by the CIA and the FBI.
And stalwart Republicans like Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) are absolutely correct that the new Republican majority in the House needs to use its power to fight the FBI and the rest of the administrative state. Voters have to hold Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) feet to the fire and ensure that he won’t use his position to continue with business as usual.
But with such a slim majority, the House Republicans don’t have the votes to pass meaningful legislation. And a Senate and White House controlled by Democrats ensure that any bills passed by the House would go nowhere in any case.
The most effective course, therefore, would be to use the power of the committee chairmanships to investigate and expose the unconstitutional usurpations of the permanent government, or “fourth branch.” This must include giving committee chairmen like Jordan subpoena power to compel recalcitrant bureaucrats.
But as I’ve pointed out in a recent book review in The New Criterion and a podcast with Lee Smith, today’s CIA and FBI are behaving exactly the way Congress intended.
The so-called reforms of the Church Committee were only a small part of sweeping changes Congress implemented in the 1970s that took advantage of a weakened presidency (and carefully managed public narrative) in the wake of the Watergate affair. The essential purpose of these changes—which fundamentally altered the constitutional separation of powers—was to bring the permanent bureaucracy under the control of the uniparty congressional leadership, most often (though not always) controlled by Democrats. It is no accident that the nominally Republican McCarthy seems more interested in the perks of his office, and accommodating himself to the D.C. establishment, than representing the wishes and interests of his base.
After Watergate, Congress—using the demonized Richard Nixon as a convenient punching bag—cleverly painted the real abuses of the FBI and the CIA as the fault of an unaccountable chief executive. But in many respects, the bureaucracy had already stopped being answerable to the elected president. What Congress did in the stunningly ambitious, and overwhelmingly Democratic, 93rd Congress (January 1973 to January 1975) amounted to a massive transfer of power away from the president—who is the only constitutional officer who represents all of the American people.
Along with “reforming” the Justice Department and the national security agencies, Congress gave itself many powers that the founders had specifically placed elsewhere: