A Truly Lame Duck

Editorial

New York Times

November 23, 2004

The story of the 2004 intelligence reform bill just keeps getting sadder and sadder. House Republicans did grievous enough harm to this vital measure during the campaign. But then, pumped up with post-election hubris, they went even further in the lame-duck session of Congress and gave us all a depressing lesson in how narrow-minded politics and weak leadership can undermine what should have been a fairly easy triumph for bipartisanship.

Despite endless - and in some cases wrongheaded - compromises among Republican and Democratic negotiators, it proved impossible to make the reform plan weak enough to satisfy a core of right-wing House Republicans and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Now all hope for a decent piece of legislation seems lost.

The measure was intended to carry out the wise counsel of the bipartisan commission on the Sept. 11 attacks to create a new job with real power to oversee the 15 overlapping intelligence agencies that failed the nation before 9/11 and the war in Iraq. President Bush resisted the idea, just as he had resisted creating the panel itself, but he ultimately signed on.

In the Senate, a bipartisan team produced a sound measure. Among other things, it would have dealt with one of the biggest problems of the current system by breaking the Pentagon's grip on intelligence budgets. But House Republicans led by Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, weakened their version in the service of a turf-conscious Pentagon and committee chairmen who put their powers ahead of the nation's security. Meanwhile, James Sensenbrenner Jr., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and other members of the House tried to turn the bill into a campaign commercial by larding it with foolish and irrelevant new police powers.

After the election, House and Senate negotiators tried to drag an actual law out of this morass, removing the added police powers and other poison-pill measures. The Senate negotiators, Susan Collins for the Republicans and Joseph Lieberman for the Democrats, were so eager to get a bill that they made excessive concessions on the powers of the national intelligence director. The compromise also gutted the authority of a proposed panel to safeguard Americans' civil liberties against expanded government powers to combat terrorists.

We take Mr. Bush at his word when he says he lobbied hard to get the bill through. But if that's the case, his lieutenants had a peculiar way of respecting the election mandate that they keep insisting he's won. Despite Mr. Rumsfeld's denials, it seems obvious that he lobbied against the president's stated policy. The House Republican leadership, which rammed the president's prescription drug bill to passage by keeping the vote open for hours past the deadline in order to strong-arm resistant legislators, seemed less than lethargic on this key issue. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader who found time last week to push through rules that would allow him to keep his post if indicted, kept a low profile. Speaker Dennis Hastert refused to permit a vote on the compromise bill rather than irritate the intractable committee heads.

And intractable was an understatement. The White House said the president contacted both Mr. Hunter and Mr. Sensenbrenner to urge them to compromise. The evidence suggests that either Mr. Bush was less than forceful in his pleas or the two veteran Republicans have a stunning lack of respect for the wishes of their newly re-elected chief executive. Mr. Hunter at one point rejected language written by Vice President Dick Cheney's lawyer. Mr. Sensenbrenner rejected a section of the bill even though it contained his own language.

Mr. Bush campaigned on the idea that he is the man to handle the aftermath of 9/11. But if he could not deliver a sound bill with the Democrats, most Republicans, the entire 9/11 commission, the 9/11 families and a lot of ordinary Americans backing him up, what will happen on something actually hard?

There's talk now about passing some version of the bill next month. As much as we want real intelligence reform, that's a bad idea if Mr. Bush is still not ready to step up. Senator Collins says she's through compromising. We support her enthusiastically. Too much harm has already been done.