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Talk of the Nation - Transcript

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National Public Radio (NPR)

SHOW: Talk of the Nation 2:00 AM EST NPR

September 16, 2004 Thursday

HEADLINE: Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission for congressional reform

ANCHORS: NEAL CONAN

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing the prospects of congressional reform in light of the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission. If you have questions, give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is totn@npr.org. And we mentioned the 9-11 Commission wants to reform congressional oversight of intelligence and homeland security. Nothing, though, can happen unless Congress is committed to reform itself. In August, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Tom Daschle created a task force to explore the commission's recommendations.

Joining us now are the co-chairs of this working group, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, the Senate majority whip. He's with us by phone from his office here in Washington.

Good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Glad to be with you.

CONAN: And Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, is the Senate minority whip. He's with us by phone from McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.

And it's good of you to be with us today, too.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Glad to be with you.

CONAN: Senator Reid, you told reporters last week anytime you try to change the status quo as far as committees, it's very difficult, but you think people exaggerate how hard it is to change?

Sen. REID: I think if there's a will it can be done. Of course it's difficult to change because anytime you change rules people gain and people lose, and senators are very careful about what prerogatives they give up, but I think we have a situation here where we have a national issue that's focused on the evil of terrorism and I think it's time we changed some of these rules.

CONAN: Senator McConnell, the systems that have been set up in the Senate, obviously, go back a very long way, tried and tested. Do they need to be blown up now?

Sen. McCONNELL: Well, they don't all go back that long. I mean, the Senate Intelligence Committee was created in the '70s. Harry is entirely correct; you know, it was always difficult to rearrange turf. Having said that, I think we're both optimistic that the Senate will act not just on the changes in the executive branch, which were covered with 39 of the 41 recommendations from the 9-11 Commission, but that we will make substantial changes in ourselves in how we deal with oversight. There's a good attitude on the bipartisan working group that Harry and I chair. People have the sense that they're involved in something that's important to the safety of the country. And we've had a high level of cooperative comments from our colleagues and look forward to doing something important.

CONAN: As you know, one of the proposals that's been talked about is to unify the authorization and appropriating authority in one committee. Now you're the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. That would mean you lose some of your power. Is that something you think is a good idea?

Sen. REID: Well, it's, of course-there are a number of changes that have been suggested. That is one of them. And as I indicated early on, the-I didn't mention earlier, but I'll mention now-the commission didn't tell us exactly what we should do in every instance. They gave us a broad outline and in some instances they gave us alternatives. And one alternative they gave us is what you suggested. And so we're going to look at that and the other things that Lee Hamilton and Governor Kean recommended through their commission. And, as Mitch mentioned, we're dealing with senators who we-as Mitch and I've been around awhile, but we have members of our task force that have been there a lot longer than we have. But this is a time where we all acknowledge there's-something needs to be done. And I think we would show a lot of class, for lack of a better description, if we did something now rather than put it off.

CONAN: Senator McConnell, you mentioned at a news conference yesterday that any changes that will be made should be done by rules rather than by statutes. What's the difference, and why?

Sen. McCONNELL: Well, the committees in the Senate are organized not by statute but by internal Senate rules, and virtually all of the changes that the 9-11 Commission recommended for ourselves-that is, how Congress deals with oversight-are not typically done by statute, but by rule of the Senate. As a practical matter, the only difference is a Senate resolution doesn't go to the president and it doesn't go to the House. It's sort of how we structure ourselves. And most of what we'll be doing will be done by Senate resolution.

CONAN: Could I ask you, Senator McConnell, a little bit more about that proposal to unite the authorization and appropriation authority within one committee? Is that something you think is a wise idea?

Sen. McCONNELL: Well, it's too early to tell what our working group will recommend. We're in the process now of sort of sifting through the various suggestions, alternatives. Then we'll meet again as a bipartisan group, and see what we think ought to be done. And I think it's premature to suggest any particular changes, but I do think-I know Harry thinks that we will be recommending significant changes.

CONAN: Senator Reid, what do you think the timetable is?

Sen. REID: The timetable is what we can work out. We would like to do something this year and we'd like to do it before we leave for Thanksgiving or maybe even October 8th. We need to do it as quickly as possible. I think the one thing I'd like your listeners, though, to understand is they hear a lot about the partisan bickering that goes on in the United States Senate and Congress generally and there is too much of that but I think I have been so impressed-and I think Mitch would underline this and underscore it-with the cooperation, the bipartisan nature of every meeting we've held. Mitch and I have met many times ourselves, the two of us, we've met with Democrats alone, Republicans alone, we've met together. And there's just a real good feeling that we need to do something and we're going to do our very best to set aside partisan differences, and I think that's-we're on that road right now.

CONAN: All right. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Leon joins us from Philadelphia.

LEON (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

LEON: I guess that adversariness is good for democracy, but this presidential campaign is getting kind of nasty, and I wonder what effect that has on the bipartisan spirit necessary to protect us?

Sen. REID: Well, the presidential election is going to be close. It's a tough election. But every member of this task force, as I mentioned earlier, have been around a long time. We have our role as the legislative branch of government. The executive branch of the government does their thing. We're going to do everything that we can to set aside whatever's going on in the presidential race and do what we think's best for the legislative branch of government.

CONAN: Senator McConnell, if you wanted to add to that, you can, but I also wanted to ask you, a third of the members of the Senate, of course, are running for re-election. Does that schedule get in the way?

Sen. McCONNELL: No. I think we have a good chance of completing our task before the November election, and if not, we'll complete it shortly after that. Harry's entirely correct. I don't sense any members of the Senate, whether they're running for election or not, acting in a terribly partisan way over the issue of how we reorganize the Senate to provide better oversight for whatever changes we make in the executive branch. I think the spirit of bipartisanship has been very much in evidence during this whole process, and I expect that to last all the way through to the end.

CONAN: Leon, thanks for the call.

LEON: Yeah. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with Jeff. Jeff's calling from Buffalo, New York.

JEFF (Caller): My question was, I wanted to know if reform is really necessary, why we are so convinced that intelligence failed? And if 9/11 occurred under Bill Clinton's reign, would we have been more likely to point fingers and say, 'The intelligence system was working and you didn't heed any of the warning'? I'm kind of baffled by this.

CONAN: Senator Reid, what examples do you have of the way the system needs to be reformed?

Sen. REID: I think one reason we've been able to work in such a bipartisan fashion is the outstanding example set by Republican Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey and Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana. They were bipartisan. There was no placing blame on any person or administration. They probably could have done that, but they avoided it, and I think it's a right way to go. What has happened has happened. We simply are not going to let it happen again. We're going to have better-as far as Mitch and I's responsibility, we're going to do a better job of making sure that this Congress and future Congresses have the ability to have adequate oversight. And we feel that with the committee set up the way that it is, that it's not possible. So we're not here to cast blame to anyone.

JEFF: I understand that. I guess I'm a little bit worried that reform, to me, is synonymous with adding more red tape and more bureaucracy. Is that-hopefully, can we avoid that, too?

Sen. McCONNELL: Yeah. Not necessarily. I mean, I'm not sure we're adding anything here. We're trying to structure both the executive branch and the congressional oversight in a way that is more responsive to the problem. The goal here is not to set up new bureaucracy, but to continue the progress that's been made since 9/11, and a substantial amount of progress has been made in breaking down whatever remaining barriers there are between various intelligence agencies and communicating with each other; thereby providing better information to decision-makers at the top, and to restructure the congressional side so that, for example, the secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, doesn't have to spend a huge percentage of his time running around testifying to different committees and subcommittees, which have pieces of jurisdiction over his department. So the idea here is to have less, not more.

CONAN: Jeff, thank you.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Linda Vining in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. 'It seems clear,' she writes, 'Congress is structurally and philosophically incapable of decisive response. I'd like to know if Congress is willing to relinquish its control to a single administrative function so that lives can be saved. I, for one, consider the idea of protection from terrorism performed by committee to be a laughable notion.'

Sen. REID: Well, if I were a lawyer and in court, I would object to that question for a lot of reasons, but the fact is that Congress has, in the past, been able to respond under the terms of Constitution as being an equal branch of government, and we are going to do everything we can to improve the congressional oversight, but in the process, we're going to keep in mind we have a Constitution and a legislative branch of government, and we're not going to give up our power to the executive branch of government.

Sen. McCONNELL: Yeah. The question seems to imply that it's Congress' job, you know, to be the CIA. That's in the executive branch. The executive branch is the branch that employs the people who go out and gather intelligence and fight wars and do that sort of thing. Our job is to provide oversight because we're elected by the people of the United States, to make sure that the funds are being spent properly, and that things are going as they should. So it is not our job in Congress to fight the war or to gather the intelligence but to provide oversight for those who do.

CONAN: Senator McConnell, Senator Reid spoke earlier about your meetings amongst each other and with various members of the United States Senate. As you know, obviously the House of Representatives has a big role in this as well. Have you been speaking with representatives from the House to see how they might be reformed and if the two kinds of reforms can be made consistent?

Sen. McCONNELL: Not yet, but I think there's a great likelihood that we will coordinate. For example, after 9/11, the two appropriation committees-the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee created a Homeland Security Subcommittee. We both did the same thing. So now there is one subcommittee of appropriations in both the House and Senate that deals with the subject of homeland security. So in all likelihood, we will do pretty much the same thing so the two branches are operating, in terms of oversight, in the same way.

CONAN: Senator Reid, one of the proposals, as you know, if for a joint House-Senate committee to do the whole thing. Is that a good idea?

Sen. REID: As Mitch said earlier, Neal, we're not going to hear talk about specifics. We have a task force of 20 other people, and we have to take our suggestions and recommendations to them. We're reviewing this, the one you suggested, and all others and take back to our members. We feel that we've made tremendous progress in less than two weeks. But as far as being specific with you or your listeners, it just would be inappropriate now and unfair to our members.

CONAN: Well, when you guys get it done, we'd welcome you back to talk about your proposal. We'd be most interested to speak with both of you. In any case, thank you for your time today.

Sen. McCONNELL: Thank you.

Sen. REID: Neal, anyone that likes baseball as much as you, I'm happy to come back on the program.

CONAN: Well, thank you, Senator Reid, and we appreciate you taking time out at the airport there in Las Vegas to speak with us today. Also, our thanks to Mitch McConnell...

Sen. McCONNELL: Thank you.

CONAN: ...who's at his office here in Washington, DC.

Sen. McCONNELL: OK, thanks.

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