We Don’t Need Another Church Committee, We Need a Reformation

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: 

  • The War Powers Act and the Impoundment Control Act gave Congress massive new authorities previously held by the president. (It is no accident, by the way, that the only real attempts over the last 50 years to bring the bureaucracy under control and reassert the sovereign authority of the people were undertaken by Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump. The first and last were destroyed by the deep state as thanks for their efforts.) 
  • The Federal Highway Act, Endangered Species Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act crippled federalism by centralizing in Washington, D.C. many responsibilities formerly exercised by the states.
  • The Privacy Act, the Legal Services Corporation Act, and the Federal Elections Campaign Act gave Congress alarming new powers to manipulate the political process to favor a liberal agenda and strengthen the Democratic Party. 

What happened with the FBI and CIA, in particular—through the new congressional-bureaucratic nexus established in the 1970s—was especially worrisome because of the potential for these agencies to misuse their police powers and surveillance abilities for political purposes. The Justice Department, to reiterate, has become the enforcement arm of the Democratic Party in large part because that is precisely what Congress intended. 

What we need now is to undo the legacy of the Church Committee. I hope I won’t offend any Catholic readers with this pun, but we need to fix the Church. We need a Reformation Committee.

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About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers' new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, will be published by Encounter this summer. He is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America and the Salvatori Research Fellow of the American Founding at the Claremont Institute. He is also a fellow of the Center for American Greatnsss.

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