Oversight Overboard

Steve Saideman on the dysfunction of both the Canadian Parliament and the U.S. Congress when it comes to proper accountability.
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February 6, 2013
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In the course of researching Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan as part of a larger project on NATO in Afghanistan, I was stunned to find out that Canadian members of Parliament (MPs), even those on the defence committee, do not have security clearances.  This means that they were ignorant of the rules of engagement that Canadian Forces followed in Afghanistan, among other things.  I was interviewing  former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin on a related topic, and he chided me, saying that I shouldn’t compare the Canadian system to the American one.  Other MPs repeatedly told me that the job of Parliament is not to conduct oversight but to hold the minister accountable, and that it is the minister’s job to oversee the Canadian Forces.  Given the stories of the past few weeks, it is not clear that process works so well.

On the other hand, the past few weeks of American oversight are enough to make Canadians feel better about their largely blind and toothless Parliament.  First, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before both Senate and House committees about the events in Benghazi last fall.  The hearing was mostly a show – an opportunity for the Republicans to take Clinton and U.S. President Barack Obama to task for failing to protect four diplomats.  Given that Clinton was days away from leaving office, this was more about signalling to one’s constituents that one can be strident than about actually trying to force changes in how the State Department operates.

This horror show was repeated when Chuck Hagel went before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the Republicans focused mostly on issues way outside the domain of the Secretary of Defense, who ordinarily does not determine U.S.-Israeli relations.  Afghanistan, drone strikes, and other topics more solidly in the Secretary of Defense’s area of responsibility got much less play.  Again, this was position-taking/grand-standing for select audiences in the U.S. – mostly those who vote in primaries, as Republican senators have learned that they are most vulnerable on the right flank from Tea Party-supported candidates.  And what better way to demonstrate one’s fealty to the hard right than to haze a Republican nominated to serve in a Democrat’s cabinet?

So, is the lesson that Canada cannot learn much from the American system of oversight?  I am not quite so sure, as I am just at the very beginning stages of an effort to compare the impact of legislatures on defence policy across the democracies of the world.  But my initial hunch is that it is not just about the institutions that empower some legislatures (members of the Bundestag’s defence committee meet with the minister of defence every week in closed sessions to get the classified updates), but also about the maturity of the parties.

Historically, in the U.S., House and Senate Armed Services committees were constructively critical of presidents, even when the same party controlled the presidency and either or both of the Houses.  Generals, admirals, their staffs, and the civilians in the Pentagon knew that their feet would be held to the fire in committees on the Hill.  This does not mean that the U.S. military and its civilian overseers were always transparent, but their anticipation of a potential grilling in front of Congress served as a critical means by which civilians controlled the military.

These days, I am not so sure the system operates effectively.  The two parties are now so polarized that neither is very critical when its nominee holds the presidency, and each goes way over the top when the other party controls the presidency.  So, in the Hagel hearings, the Democrats did not really ask any tough questions, while the Republicans asked very few relevant ones. 

This leads back to Canada: Can the defence committee in Parliament have any relevancy, given the constraints of the parliamentary system?  If the parties can be mature enough to focus on the more important issues, where the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence fall short, then they can create the pressure needed to induce the government to change its policies (for instance, Parliament ultimately did compel the government to reconsider the F-35).  On the other hand, when MPs get sucked into other, less central issues, the more important ones get crowded off the agenda.  The focus on Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s infamous helicopter ride, for instance, draws attention away from his more serious failings in this position ­– namely, his systematic denial of procurement problems.  When the Official Opposition uses its time to attack the governing party instead of using its time to criticize government performance, the public and, ultimately, Parliament lose.  

Sure, the job of the opposition is to oppose, but, as an old Monty Python sketch reminds us, an argument involves more than just one side saying “it is” and the other saying “it isn’t.”  Being critical and being opposed are not identical.  The American parties have lost sight of this, so oversight is not nearly as effective as it once was.  The Canadian parties seem blind to this distinction, so accountability is pretty flawed these days.  So, while the institutions in the two countries vary, right now, the parties in Canada and the U.S. seem to have the same level of maturity – which leaves both countries far worse off.