Jessica and I were talking yesterday about human nature and the inherent flaws of meritocratic organizations. People want power and recognition for its own sake, and those who tend to rise high within an organization are often hard workers not because they care about the organization or its goals, but because of their lust for power.

I doubt anyone would disagree with that simple observation, which is why our culture frowns on people who derive personal benefits from organizational power. The pastor of a megachurch shouldn't get a "company" limo, and the CEO of a corporation can't use his insider information to profit on the stock market. The salary and benefits paid by an organization should be high enough to align the powerful employees' goals with those of the organization, and most corporate structures are designed that way. However, such a structure was not envisioned when our Constitution was written, and so our legislators are preoccupied with power and prestige because their goals do not align with ours.

It was a solemn pledge, repeated by Democratic leaders and candidates over and over: If elected to the majority in Congress, Democrats would implement all of the recommendations of the bipartisan commission that examined the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But with control of Congress now secured, Democratic leaders have decided for now against implementing the one measure that would affect them most directly: a wholesale reorganization of Congress to improve oversight and funding of the nation's intelligence agencies. ...

It may seem like a minor matter, but members of the commission say Congress's failure to change itself is anything but inconsequential. In 2004, the commission urged Congress to grant the House and Senate intelligence committees the power not only to oversee the nation's intelligence agencies but also to fund them and shape intelligence policy. The intelligence committees' gains would come at the expense of the armed services committees and the appropriations panels' defense subcommittees. Powerful lawmakers on those panels would have to give up prized legislative turf.

But the commission was unequivocal about the need.

"Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important," the panel wrote. "So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need."

I'm certainly not a huge fan of the 9/11 Commission, but this recommendation appears eminently sensible. It's clear that the congresscritters who currently control the intelligence budget aren't eager to keep it because they think they're doing a better job than anyone else could, but rather because it pumps up their portfolio.

To the Sept. 11 commission, the call for congressional overhaul was vital, said former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), the commission's co-chairman. Because intelligence committee membership affords lawmakers access to classified information, only intelligence committee members can develop the expertise to watch over operations properly, he said. But because the panels do not control the budget, intelligence agencies tend to dismiss them.

"The person who controls your budget is the person you listen to," Kean said.

Those people, the appropriators, do not seem to care much, he said. The intelligence budget is a small fraction of the nearly $500 billion overseen by the armed services committees and the appropriations panels' defense subcommittees. Kean said that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an Armed Services Committee member, told the Sept. 11 commission that if his panel spends 10 minutes considering the intelligence budget, it has been a good year.

Professionally, people are motivated by only a few things: money, power, and prestige. It might make everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside to hope that our legislators are altruistic and only have our best interests at heart, but anyone who watched any campaign ads earlier this month knows that isn't true. Our Constitutional system is designed to reward successful congressmen with reelection -- power and prestige -- but that's a rather blunt instrument when applied every two years.

I'm not sure if there's an effective way to harness the power of money to force our politicians to align their goals more closely with those of the public, short of what many would consider to be outright bribery. Maybe the system we've got is the best possible, but given that it isn't based on capitalistic competitive principles I doubt that's the case.



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