Why the Cynics Are Wrong About Presidential Commissions

Fact & Fiction

Dr. Flitner is the author of The Politics of Presidential Commissions: A Public Policy Perspective (Transnational Publishers, 1986) and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of the American Presidency.

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President Bush's decision to aquiesce in the appointment of a commission to investigate the apparent failures of intelligence which was used in the argument for war with Iraq raises questions of the most sober import and urgency.

First among these, in the minds of many, will be with regard to the choice of the ad hoc advisory commission as the most appropriate vehicle for such an inquiry. In fact, few instruments of government are more precisely suited to such an undertaking. The astonishing disparity between expectation and fact in the present matter, coupled with the sheer inability of anyone in a position of authority to take responsibility, amounts to a case study in the logic of the need for rigorous investigation by a disinterested third party.

There are times when what is most needed is an examination, as Sen. John McCain said in calling for a commission on the events leading to September 11th, by"trustworthy, experienced statesmen who, if not entirely devoid of partisan loyalties, are sufficiently removed by time and wisdom from the appeal of such loyalties to know when they conflict with the national interest." Experience suggests that any commission may conduct its work along certain tested guidelines with varying degrees of success depending largely upon the clarity of its mission; the quality of its leadership, staff, and resources; and its ability to avoid partisan, procedural, and even personal trapdoors. This  being said, the pleasant surprise history teaches is that if a commission is capable of meeting some fundamental criteria it may provide an invigorating and enlightening opportunity for a journey of shared inquiry whose ramifications may exceed all intitial expectations.

From the earliest days of the Republic, presidential commissions have been resorted to, frequently when no one can figure out how better to look at difficult questions. Commissions have been asked to explore subjects from the most obscure to the catastrophic, from the standardization of screw threads to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. When the need arises, it is the advisory commission to which presidents turn; and this, despite the fact that commission appointments are sometimes imagined, by superficial observers, to be primarily ineffectual soporifics designed essentially for the avoidance of more substantive action. Indeed, commissions have provided the basis for legislative and administrative reform as well as affecting the very social climate itself via their sometimes forceful role as public educators. They may promote redefinition of critical social and political issues, increase awareness, lend legitimacy to previously marginal points of view, and actually inspire the national conscience.

Historically, commissions have enjoyed a colorful chronology. In 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania revolted against the federal excise tax on spirits. Faced with the Whisky Rebellion, President George Washington sent a commission to investigate the situation and attempt to mediate a settlement. Although the latter goal could not be achieved, the president applauded the commission's efforts prior to suppressing the rebellion militarily. Washington's precedent of commission appointment took root. Martin Van Buren sent a commission to Europe to study post office establishments. Andrew Jackson appointed a commission to study the Naval Department. John Tyler sent a group to investigate the affairs of the New York Custom House.

In the twentieth century commissions began to take on subjects of larger and more diverse scope and greater public relevance. Notably, Theodore Roosevelt made use of commissions to study issues of public land use, inland waterways, and conservation, actively employing commissions as a tool for public education as well as policy advancement. In the 1960s and 1970s, commissions reached their zenith as the United States entered an era of historic confrontation with itself. During this time high-level blue ribbon commissions were asked to seek perspective on assassinations, urban riots, the phenomenon of violence in society, marijuana, population growth, pornography, and campus riots.

These latter bodies, in particular, gave some of the best evidence of the viability and efficacy of commissions as well as the pitfalls of misplaced presidential expectations. It is worth remembering the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders's stunning indictment that declared"Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal" and that"white racism" was fundamental to this pathology. The Scranton Commission on Campus Unrest called the killing of student protesters at Kent State University and Jackson State College"unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable" and (in a direct affront to the president -- Richard Nixon -- who had appointed it) declared unequivocally that"a nation driven to use the weapons of war upon its youth is a nation on the edge of chaos. A nation that has lost the allegiance of its youth is a nation that has lost part of its future." A report of the Eisenhower Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence condemned the actions of the Chicago police against demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic convention.

Some of these statements may seem a bit obvious in hindsight but at the time they were almost without equal in the degree to which they lent the imprimatur of Establishment America to alternative perspectives on political phenomena. And therein lies the vital clue as to the unique nature of the best commissions. Because what often occurs during the course of a commission's work is that rarest of things in human enterprise: people learn and they grow. No one put this more simply or clearly than Dr. Milton S. Eisenhower, who chaired the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence:"I want to tell you it was a revelation to me.... we freed our minds of all preconceptions. When we started we couldn't have agreed on anything." The transforming aspect of the commission experience is such that, on the best commissions, members go in thinking they already know the tune and come out singing a new song. This is not insignificant stuff in a political system where most institutions are inherently geared to preservation of the prevailing order.

It is to be hoped that all comissions will approach their tasks in the spirit of Lyndon Johnson's charge to the Kerner Commission:"Let your search be free. Let it be untrammeled by what has been called  the 'conventional wisdom.' As best you can, find the truth, the whole truth, and express it in your report."

Like so much else in life, there are no guarantees about commissions. But history suggests we not count them out before they've even begun their unique journey across the American political landscape.

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Carl Roesler - 2/10/2004

My assertion is that the efficacy of a presidential commission would be heightened if its ambit were not to investigate, even indirectly, presidential misconduct. The current commission on intelligence would be more believable if its composition were not determined by the White House and if its report were not due after the elections this fall. It creates the impression that the intent of the commission is to minimize potential political damage that might retard a reelected administration from waging another preventive war in pursuit of its malevolent objective.