You might assume that attaining public office opens certain doors, that your calls begin to get answered and your demands for public information hold greater weight. It makes sense that, as an elected official representing a certain number of citizens, your inquires of government departments would be taken seriously.
In truth, bureaucracies tend to compartmentalize information and keep important facts from legislators. Congressman Justin Amash provided an eye-opening example in a presentation to the Liberty Political Action Conference last year. “There was no way for members of Congress to hear about these programs,” Amash said in reference to applications of the Patriot Act which, in his view, exceed the legislative intent of Congress.
What you’ll hear from the intelligence committees, from the chairmen of the intelligence committees, is that, “Well, members can come to the classified briefings, and they can ask whatever questions they want.”
But if you’ve actually been to one of these classified briefings, which none of you have but I have, what you’ll discover is that it’s just a game of twenty questions. You ask a question, and if you don’t ask it in exactly the right way, you don’t get the right answer. So if you use the wrong pronoun, or if you talk about one agency but actually another agency is doing [what you’re asking about], they won’t tell you. They’ll just say, “No, that’s not happening.” They don’t correct you and say, “Here’s what is happening.”
Amash goes on to relate, in as much detail as he legally can, an incident where a congressional colleague managed to ask the right question after several attempts. It uncovered a practice that he wanted to know more about. So he asked for documentation, and was told that there would be follow-up breifing.
Notification of that follow-up was made through irregular channels which Amash would have overlooked but for an observant staff member. Amash spread the word to a number of his colleagues about the new briefing, and found that those he told were the only members who attended. Whatever they saw or were told remains classified, so much so that Amash and the other members in attendance can’t even tell their fellow representatives about it.
These intelligence committees are supposed to oversee the executive branch. They’re supposed to work for Congress and their supposed to work for you [the citizenry]. They’re not supposed to work for the administration. And I don’t care if it’s a Republican administration or a Democrat administration. They’re supposed to work for you. And frankly, you have people on both sides of the aisle who are working together to prevent members of Congress from having this information. And it has to stop.
Taking questions from the audience, Amash confirmed that similar obstruction has kept members of Congress from getting answers regarding Benghazi.
When our representatives can’t get the information they need to make informed decisions in the craft of law, how can it be argued that our government is truly by, for, and of us?
(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here. 12:12 minutes long; 11.77 MB file size. Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)