When Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, accused the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of spying on staff, she brought to light a conflict that makes for a fascinating study of how the U.S Federal Government operates. In 2009, the Intelligence Committee launched an investigation into the CIA’s interrogation techniques in the global war on terror. To facilitate the Committee’s work, the CIA provided computers in a building they controlled for the staff to access documents. Senate staff were supposed to have their an independent area on the computer network, partitioned from the CIA’s section. Important documents were removed from the Senate access, allegedly without authorization. On the other hand, the CIA has contended that the Senate staff might have accessed agency files without authorization as well.
The dispute is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Executive-Legislative tensions are not shocking in American history, but the prospect of one or both branches acting in a potentially criminal manner in their relations is definitely on the extraordinary end of the spectrum. Then, the case also illustrates the complexities of the two-party system. For one, the Senate Intelligence Committee overwhelmingly voted in a bipartisan manner to commission the investigation, but then Republican support for it eventually cooled, since the investigators were not going to be able to interview CIA officials. Further, once Chairman Feinstein released her accusations, responses from Members did not fall along partisan lines: Some Republicans expressed concern, but some Democrats were more reserved. Finally, it also illustrates the importance of individual relationships to the governing process. For example, The Washington Post noted that, despite the Chairman’s accusations, she is an important “ally” for the Executive Branch’s espionage work.
If the Feinstein-CIA conflict is not enough Executive-Legislative drama for you, then read on about a new bill the House of Representatives approved on Wednesday. The Republican-controlled House passed a bill that would provide lawmakers with a way to sue the Executive Branch, if they do not think the President is carrying out the laws. The bill, sponsored by Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, would permit either Chamber to bring a case to a three-judge Federal panel, which would go directly to the Supreme Court thereafter. This is in response to a concern that President Barack Obama is not enforcing a variety of laws, including those on immigration, healthcare and traditional marriage. “If you can’t assert the significance of your institution, then that makes me wonder why you’re in that institution,” Representative Gowdy argued.
It would be interesting to see whether a court would uphold such a law, since Members of Congress generally do not have “standing” to file a suit against the President for not enforcing the law. It’s a moot question anyways, since the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he would not entertain such a bill, and the President would veto it.
And for our latest post: More Nuclear-Option Fallout: Senate Blocks Presidential Appointment