Three reforms to fix the House Intelligence Committee

Three reforms to fix the House Intelligence Committee
© Greg Nash

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, long a bastion of relative bipartisanship and responsible behavior in an increasingly polarized Congress, appears to be badly broken. 

The reckless behavior of the Chairman Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesOvernight Defense: Stopgap spending measure awaits Senate vote | Trump nominates former Nunes aide for intelligence community watchdog | Trump extends ban on racial discrimination training to contractors, military Trump nominates former Nunes aide to serve as intel community inspector general Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election MORE (R-Calif.), has been widely reported. Using selective leaks, see-no-evil investigative techniques, and highly partisan reports, he seems to see his primary job as protecting President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE rather than our national security. Sadly, the Republican members of the committee have gone along with his dangerous behavior.


The question now becomes how to restore the committee to its former level of responsible oversight. Doing so is vitally important to our national security.


Not only would a conscientious Intelligence committee ensure future investigations are carried out fully and fairly, but it would restore the confidence of the country and the intelligence community in the work of the panel. The nation must know that the Committee is holding our vast, powerful, multi-billion dollar intelligence system accountable. And our intelligence operatives must have confidence that the secrets they risk their lives to obtain will not be used or leaked for partisan purposes. 

What is at stake is ensuring our intelligence system is operating well enough to predict the next 9/11 or detect future Russian interference in our elections — and that it will not return to the darker abuses of the past. To restore credibility, we must ensure that the committee never again seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the intelligence agencies with wild conspiracy theories dressed up as committee reports. 

There are three important steps that could restore that confidence. First, the committee should be reformed to follow the model of the House Ethics Committee, which has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, regardless of the overall partisan division of the House. In addition, the two leaders of the committee should be co-chairs, sharing responsibility for running the panel. That would force them to work together and build a consensus for any action or investigation. 

Unlike other congressional committees, which need control by the majority to move legislation and avoid complete stalemate, the Intelligence Committee can carry out its oversight function without a controlling party. Like the Ethics Committee, this work should be largely beyond party.

An even more important reform would be to change how the leaders and members of the committee are chosen. The two co-chairmen should be selected by their party leaders — Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 At indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates MORE (R-Wis.) and Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Overnight Health Care: New wave of COVID-19 cases builds in US | Florida to lift all coronavirus restrictions on restaurants, bars | Trump stirs questions with 0 drug coupon plan Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds MORE (D-Calif.) – but that choice would be subject to a veto by the other party’s leader. That would make it more likely that the co-chairs are people of integrity who enjoy the confidence of the whole House — and by extension, the nation.

The members of the committee would then be picked by either the party leaders or the co-chair of their respective party. But, again, the selections would be subject to a veto by the other co-chair. It would operate not unlike the challenges to prospective jurors by trial lawyers in order to avoid highly prejudiced members.

Democrats, if they take the House majority in November, might be loath to give Republicans an equal share of power in future investigations. But they should consider the value of having the panel's conclusions — arrived at by new membership — receive wide bipartisan acceptance. For Republicans, should they hold the majority, this path would allow them a graceful way to restore their credibility on these issues. 

No system can exclude the possibility of irresponsible behavior. Members of Congress are obviously political actors, and if the motivation or partisan pressure is high enough, they will game even this new arrangement.

But by requiring a consensus of confidence in the leadership and membership of this important panel, perhaps we can return to a committee focused on our national interest. With all the challenges that we face, I hope that both parties will commit to implementing rule changes when the new House is seated next January.

Keith Gaby was a speechwriter for the secretary of Defense from 1998 to 2001.