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Independent Commissions:

Their History, Utilization and Effectiveness


Steve Schwalbe

Auburn University
Independent commissions give private citizens an opportunity to assist
government with significant problems without being beholden to the government
or the current administration.1
Dr. David Linowes, four-time chairman of recent federal commissions

Even before the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States had begun to draw down

its military forces. However, the infrastructure supporting the reduced military was not cut back

correspondingly. Between 1977 and 1988, no military bases were closed, primarily due to the

restrictions placed on the Department of Defense (DoD) by Congress. Because of the economic

impact and political sensitivities of closing a military base at the local level, members of

Congress were understandably upset with DoD decisions to close bases without prior

consultation. One remedy available to resolve problems between branches of government like

this is to establish an independent commission. In this case, Congress authorized four base

realignment and closure (BRAC) commissions between 1988 and 1995, resulting in the closing

of over 130 bases.2

So, what are independent commissions? My intent in this paper is to discuss the various

aspects of federal independent commissions, from their origins in the late 1880s to what they

have become, including how successful they have been and may be in the future. University of

Wisconsin Professor Thomas Wolanin discovered, as I did, that there really is not much research

and writing, as would be expected, on this very important subject. “Despite their common

occurrence and the great public interest shown in many of their reports, there is only a very

scanty popular and social science literature discussing independent presidential advisory

commissions as political institutions.”3 When Dr. Samuel Patterson conducted a peer review of

one of my sources for this paper this year, he confirmed this position stating, “Congressional
David Linowes, Creating Public Policy: The Chairman’s Memoirs of Four Presidential Commissions (Westport:
Praeger, 1998), p. 1.
David Sorenson, Shutting Down the Cold War (NYC: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 232.
Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 5.
scholars will, needless to say, welcome this introduction to a neglected topic.”4 Despite the

paucity of publication, I found over a half dozen comprehensive books and close to a dozen

current publications on independent commissions.


Independent commissions prepare public reports at least annually for both branches of

government. As such, Congress claims that commissions are independent agencies not under

either the executive or legislative branches. However, although the U.S. Constitution does not

discuss commissions or their establishment anywhere, they are approved by Congress; hence, are

not independent of the U.S. Government.5 According to Dr. Colton Campbell, independent

commissions are “formal groups established by statute or decree for the general purpose of

obtaining advice, developing common sense recommendations on complex policy issues, and

finding broadly acceptable solutions to contentious problems.” Normally these issues deal with

major social crises, policy issues, and studies of a complex, technical nature.6


With the advent of the railroad in the U.S. in the late 1800s, numerous states established

commissions to effectively supervise them. State legislators felt that commissions could more

easily accumulate the expert knowledge needed to regulate the railroads than they could.

However, when the Supreme Court in 1886 struck down an Illinois statute on railroad commerce

involving neighboring states, Congress was obligated to become involved. It adopted the state

approach and established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887. Congress did not

Samuel Patterson, Book Review of Colton Campbell’s Discharging Congress: Government by Commission, in
Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 31, Issue 4, (Fall 2000), pg. 3.
United States Congress. Our American Government. (Washington D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 2000),
pp. 52-53.
Colton Campbell, “Creating an Angel: Congressional Delegation to Ad Hoc Commissions,” Congress & the
Presidency, Vol. 25, No. 2, (Autumn 1998), pp. 161-62.

authorize the ICC to fix railroad rates, but it did authorize it to issue orders regarding the rates set

by the railroads and to enforce its orders in court. Since no one challenged the authority of the

ICC, Congress established many more {independent} regulatory commissions in the early 1900s,

to include the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Power Commission, the Federal

Communications Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.7


There are primarily three types of commissions, based on the nature of their creation and

function: presidential, congressional, and regulatory.


The most common type today is the presidential commission, created at the request of the

President. University of Illinois Professor David Linowes stated that nine out of every ten

commissions are presidential.8 Wolanin claimed that President Theodore Roosevelt was the

“father” of presidential commissions as he was the first to employ groups of non-governmental

experts to examine problems of public policy. He defined presidential independent commissions

(also known as advisory commissions) as a corporate group of members, appointed by the

President on an ad hoc basis, to advise the President in a public report. They are created by a

congressional act with at least one member from the private sector. He stated that between 1945

and 1968 only about three presidential commissions a year on average were appointed.9

Wolanin also found that the active nature of presidents directly correlated with how often

commissions were created. The more “active” presidents (i.e., active regarding new policies)

Fisher, Louis. The Politics of Shared Power. College Station: Texas A&M University
Press, 1998), pp. 146-147.
Linowes, Creating Public Policy, p. 8.
Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, pp. 5, 7, 31.

had a tendency to establish independent commissions more readily than inactive ones.10

Linowes noted from his experience that commissions appointed by the President carry more

prestige than any other type. Congress normally grants commissions the power to subpoena

witnesses to testify at public hearings, which is where the majority of the data collection is



All independent commissions are authorized by congressional legislation, but not all are

considered congressional commissions. Congressional commissions are established by Congress

to make policy recommendations. Their composition is similar to any other independent

commission. Campbell conducted over 50 interviews with congressional offices that had

recommended establishing independent commissions in the mid-1990s, and discovered that

expertise to comprehend complex and technical policy problems was the most common

explanation for independent commission formation. The second most cited reason was to pare

down Congress’s workload. Resource, time, and expertise limitations caused members of

Congress to delegate its authority to an independent commission. Campbell concluded that,

“Congress cannot possibly legislate in all governmental situations.”12 Hence, congressional

commissions serve as a form of subcontracting for particular and immediate needs. The bottom

line is they provide inexpensive labor and quality information in a short time span.


As mentioned earlier, regulatory commissions were the first created, and, generally, have

the longest tenures. The vast majority of the commissions until the latter half of the twentieth

century were regulatory. As these commissions wielded substantial power beyond reporting

Ibid., p. 142.
Linowes, Creating Public Policy, p. 10.
Campbell, “Creating an Angel,” p. 7.

recommendations, they were susceptible to financial and political corruption. University of

North Carolina Professor Wilson Doyle wrote in 1939 that regulatory commissions can be

granted judicial, administrative and even policy-making powers by Congress.13

University of Kentucky Professor William Berry researched the validity of “capture

theory” regarding regulatory commissions in the early 1980s. The theory posits that once a

commission is created, the public is satisfied that its interests are being taken care of by

professional experts; hence, the public tends to lose interest in the issue. The media are also

similarly affected, as other issues without resolution surface that are more newsworthy. In

contrast, the “regulated” groups maintain a strong interest because their interests are at stake.

The constant interaction between the regulatory commission and the regulated groups, without

interference from the public or media, naturally causes the commission to become co-opted or

“captured” by the groups, possibly even corrupted. Berry discovered that several studies found

regulatory commissions were not being captured; i.e., not dominated by the industries they

regulated.14 He concluded that, “intervention in the regulatory process by representatives of

consumers and the public exists and does not affect the nature of regulated outcomes.”15

Congressional research specialist Dr. Louis Fisher noted that regulatory commissions are

subject to the control of Congress, the President, and the courts. To counter regulated industry

attempts to co-opt commissioners, or their being unduly influenced by the President,

commissioner “independence” is secured by staggering their terms relative to the President,

Wilson Doyle, Independent Commissions in the Federal Government (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 1939), p. 4.
William Berry, “An Alternative to the Capture Theory of Regulation,” American Journal of Political Science,
Vol. 28, Issue 3, (August1984), p. 525.
Ibid., p. 553.

limiting the power of the President to remove any of the members, and balancing the number of

commissioners representing political parties or interest groups.16


Many analysts characterize commissions as an unofficial, separate branch of government,

much like the news media. Campbell referred to commissions as the “fifth arm of government,”

after the media, the often-referred-to fourth arm.17 However, the media and independent

commissions have as many similarities as differences. They are similar in that neither is

mentioned in the Constitution. Both conduct oversight functions. Both serve to educate and

inform the public. Both allow elites to participate in shaping government policy.

On the other hand, the media and independent commissions are dissimilar in many ways.

Where the news media responds to market forces, and hence will likely operate in perpetuity,

independent commissions respond to a federal requirement to resolve a difficult problem.

Therefore, they exist for a relatively short period of time, expiring once a final report is

published and disseminated. Where the media’s primary functions are reporting and analyzing

the news, a commission’s primary responsibilities can range from developing a recommended

solution to a difficult problem to regulating an entire department of the executive branch. The

media receives its funding primarily from advertisers, where commissions receive their funding

from Congress, the President, or from private sources. The news media deal with issues foreign

and domestic, while independent commissions generally focus on domestic issues.


Commissions serve numerous purposes in the U.S. Government. Campbell cited three

primary reasons for the establishment of federal independent commissions. First, they are

Fisher, The Politics of Shared Power, p. 153.
Campbell, “Creating an Angel,” p. 1.

established to provide expertise the Congress does not have among its own elected officials or

their staffs. Next, he noted that the second most frequently cited reason by members of Congress

for establishing a commission was to reduce the workload in Congress. Finally, they are formed

to provide a convenient scapegoat to deflect the wrath of the electorate; i.e., “blame

avoidance.”18 Fisher found three advantages of regulatory commissions. First, commission

members bring essential expert insights to a commission because the regulated industries are

normally “complex and highly technical.” Second, appointing commissioners for extended

terms of full-time work allows commissioners to become very familiar with the technical aspects

of an industry, through periodic contacts that Congress would not be able to accomplish. As a

result of their tenure, varied membership, and shared responsibility, commissioners would be

resistant to external pressures. Finally, regulatory commissions provide policy continuity

essential to the stability of a regulated industry.19

What the taxpayers are primarily looking for from independent commissions are non-

partisan solutions to current problems. A good example of establishing a commission to find

non-partisan solutions is Congress regulating its own ethical behavior. University of Florida

Professor Beth Rosenson researched this issue and concluded that authorizing an ethics

commission may be “based on the fear of electoral retaliation if legislators do not take aggressive

action to regulate their own ethics.”20

Campbell noted that commissions perform several other functions besides providing

recommendations to the President and Congress. The most common reason provided by analysts

is that members of Congress generally want to avoid making difficult decisions that may

Campbell, “Creating an Angel,” p. 2.
Fisher, The Politics of Shared Power, p. 150.
Beth Rosenson, “Against Their Apparent Self-Interest: The Authorization of Independent State Legislative Ethics
Commissions,” State Politics and PolicyQuarterly, Vol. 3, No.1, (Spring 2003), pp.45.

adversely affect their chances for reelection. As he noted, “Incentives to avoid blame lead

members of Congress to adopt a distinctive set of political strategies, such as ‘passing the buck’

or ‘deflection’….”21 Another technique legislators use to avoid incurring the wrath of the voters

is to schedule any controversial independent commissions for after the next election. Establish-

ing a commission to research the issue and come up with recommendations after a preset period

of time is an effective way to do that. The most clear-cut example demonstrating this technique

is the timing of the BRAC commissions in the 1990s — all three made their base closure

recommendations in non-election years (1991, 1993, and 1995). Even the next BRAC

commission, established by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002, is not

required to submit its base closure recommendations until 2005.

Congress certainly is not the most efficient organization in the U.S.; hence, there are

times when an independent commission is the more efficient and effective way to go. Law-

makers are almost always short on time and information, which makes the option of delegating

authority to a commission very appealing. Oftentimes, the expertise and necessary information

is very costly for Congress to acquire. Commissions are generally the most inexpensive way for

Congress to solve complex problems. From 1993-1997, Campbell found that 92 congressional

offices introduced legislation that included proposals to establish ad hoc commissions.22

There are numerous other reasons for establishing independent commissions. They are

created as a symbolic response to a crisis or to satisfy the electorate at home. They have served

as trial balloons to test the political waters, or to make political gains with the voters. They can

Campbell, “Creating an Angel,” pp. 3-4.
Ibid., p. 5.

be created to gain public or political consensus. Often, when Congress has exhausted all its other

options, a commission serves as an option of last resort.23

Commissions are a relatively impartial way to help resolve problems between the

executive and legislative branches of government, especially during periods of congressional

gridlock. Wolanin also noted that commissions are “particularly useful for problems and in

circumstances marked by federal executive branch incapacity.” Federal bureaucracies suffer

from many of the same shortcomings attributed to Congress when considering commissions.

They often lack the expertise, information, and time to conduct the research and make

recommendations to resolve internal problems. They can be afflicted by groupthink, not being

able to think outside the box, or by not being able to see the big picture. Commissions offer a

non-partisan, neutral option to address bureaucratic policy problems.24 Defense Secretary

Donald Rumsfeld has decided to implement the recommendations of the congressionally-

chartered Commission on Space, which he chaired prior to being appointed Secretary of


One of the more important functions of independent commissions is educating and

persuading. Due to the high visibility of most appointed commissioners, a policy issue will

automatically tend to gain public attention. According to Wolanin, the prestige and visibility of

commissions give them the capability to focus attention on a problem, and to see that thinking

about it permeates more rapidly. A recent example of a high-visibility commission chair

appointment was Henry Kissinger, selected to chair the commission to look into the perceived

intelligence failure regarding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S. .26 Wolanin

Campbell, “Creating an Angel,” pp. 6-7.
Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, pp. 44-45.
David Rapp, “Task-Forcing the Issues,” CQ Weekly, Vol. 59, Issue 19, (12 May 2001), p.2.
Dr. Kissinger resigned his appointment before the intelligence commission ever met.

cited four educational impacts of commissions: 1) educating the general public; 2) educating

government officials; 3) serving as intellectual milestones; and, 4) educating the commission

members themselves. Regarding education of the general public, he stated that, “Commissions

have helped to place broad new issues on the national agenda, to elevate them to a level of

legitimate and pressing matters about which government should take affirmative action.”

Regarding educating government officials, he noted that, “The educational impact of

commissions within government…make it safer for congressmen and federal executives to

openly discuss or advocate a proposal that has been sanctioned by such an ‘august group’.”

Commission reports have often been so influential that they serve as milestones in affected

fields. Such reports have become source material for analysts, commentators, and even students,

particularly when commission reports are widely published and disseminated. Finally, by

serving on a commission, members also learn much about the issue, and about the process of

analyzing a problem and coming up with viable recommendations. Commissioners also learn

from one another.27



All independent commissions share a number of common characteristics from

membership appointment to budgeting to reporting. The most important characteristic for any

commission is its membership. Arguably, the most important member of any commission is the

chairman. Traditionally, this person has been selected by the organization creating the

commission, formally nominated by the President, and then approved by the Senate. This

process satisfies the check-and-balance requirement regarding independent commissions. The

remaining members can either be selected by the chairman and approved by the President and
Wolanin, “Creating an Angel,” pp. 146, 148, 149-51.

Congress, or politically mandated in the commission legislation. The President has been given

the authority over time to nominate all the members of presidential advisory commissions, and

has often done so to his advantage.28 The number of members varies by the type of commission.

Normally, presidential and congressional commissions have fewer than ten members. However,

regulatory commissions may have many more than ten due to the complexity and scope of the

industry being overseen. Having fewer members allows commissions to focus their energies

more effectively, enhances prospects for group identity and esprit de corps, and improves

internal communication.29

To determine whether or not Presidents exerted undue pressure on regulatory

commissions, University of New Orleans Professor Jeffrey Cohen conducted a study of the

presidential nominees to the Interstate Commerce Commission from 1955 through 1974. He

alleged that the frequent turnover among regulatory commissioners offered the President ample

opportunity to influence membership in his favor. Cohen discovered, on the contrary, that the

White House often pays little attention to regulatory commission appointments; that

commissions became the “dumping grounds” for political supporters unable to get elected.

Presidents, normally, do not want to expend “silver bullets” on getting commissioners approved

by Congress; hence, they want their nominations to “sail through” the confirmation process.

And, those wanting to become commissioners usually view commissions as spring boards to

more lucrative jobs in the industry being regulated.30 Of course, this does not normally apply to

independent commissions because they are established to resolve functional instead of

organizational issues. Cohen’s research led him to the conclusion that, “presidential influence is

not a given on all independent commissions. Because of the haphazard nature of the

Fisher, The Politics of Shared Power, p. 155.
Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 32.
Cohen, “Presidential Control,” P. 69.

appointment process, the lack of presidential attention, and the initiative of prospective

nominees, the linkage between the President and the commissions may be indirect at best….”31

Term Limits

Where the term limits for presidential or congressional independent commissions are

relatively short (normally less than two years), the term limits on regulatory commissions tend to

be much longer to provide continuity and stability to the oversight, as well as maintain

independence from outside influence. Regarding independent commissions, Wolanin noted:

The average commission lasts 11.6 months. Roughly half this time is available
for data gathering and research; the rest is occupied by initial organization and
staff recruitment, analysis of the research and data by the staff and the
commission members, decision-making on findings and recommendations, and
writing the report. Six months for the average commission is hardly enough

President Reagan asked Linowes to chair a commission to study federal coal leasing that was to

have a life of only six months, including recruiting commissioners and hiring staff.33 Linowes

noted that for one of the four commissions he chaired, the commission held 34 days of hearings,

interviewing 350 witnesses representing 249 companies and federal agencies.34 Given

Wolanin’s previous observation, this arbitrary time limitation raises questions about whether so

few commissioners could deal with such complex issues effectively in such a short time span.

The term limitation for independent commissions is normally defined in the enacting

legislation. Non-regulatory commissions terminate with the submission of their final report.

According to Wolanin, the time limit is not rigidly enforced, but, “it does represent White House

expectations and is a strongly felt constraint on commission members and staff.” He also noted

Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 100.
Linowes, Creating Public Policy, p. 99.
Ibid., p. 48. The commission issue was privacy in America.

that the temporary nature of commissions means that they are free of historical baggage and are

not required to accomplish the routine actions of permanent organizations.35

Commission Staff

Staffs are often the key to a successful commission. Normally, the full-time professional

staff members of commissions are lawyers and mid-level substantive experts on loan from the

federal government (though staffers have been recruited from universities, industry, and think

tanks). To lend credibility and legitimacy to a commission, staff members will generally be

recruited who are senior experts with well-known reputations inside and outside their fields of

expertise. Staff members are deliberately selected from various sources and with equal

opportunity guidelines in mind to prevent any accusations of bias towards any organization,

group, or position.36

People find out about commission staff openings through word of mouth, requests sent to

federal agencies, or advertisements in publications such as the Federal Register.37 Those

candidates with previous commission experience or with ties to important constituencies the

commission needs to deal with are usually selected as staff members. The process of recruiting

staff relies a great deal on personal relationships and previous working experiences of the

commissioners with prospective staff members. Wolanin, however, does not feel most staff

members’ training and professional experience facilitate research, analysis, and report

recommendations under severe time limitations. Sometimes social scientists are engaged by

commissions as consultants or as staff, but are usually not available due to short notices or not

motivated to assist a federal commission because the payoff is much lower (unlike for lawyers

and government experts). In fact, recruiting the best and brightest people as staff members is a

Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 32.
Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 108.
Linowes, Creating Public Policy, pp. 68-69.

major problem for most commissions because of the short notice, the reluctance of any

organization to give up its best workers even for a short period, and scheduling conflicts.38

Fisher pointed out that senior staffers from Congress are good candidates to become

commissioners or staffers since they oftentimes are instrumental in creating the commissions in

the first place, and, hence, have the desired background knowledge.39


The funding of commissions is primarily a function of what kind of commission it is.

The President can draw from two sources of funding for presidential independent commissions:

the Presidential Emergency Fund (since 1942) and the Special Projects Fund (since 1955). Both

of these funds are authorized by Congress. According to Wolanin:

For over a hundred years the President and the Congress have waged an
occasionally hot guerrilla war on the appropriations frontier over the ability of the
President to fund ad hoc advisory bodies. In the final analysis, the President has
come out on top because of the inability of Congress to match the inventiveness
of the White House in evading Congressional restrictions, and because of the
inability or unwillingness of the Congress to cut too deeply into the flexibility…of
executive power….40

Commissions, by tradition, have been established using three kinds of instruments: congressional

statutes, executive orders, and presidential announcements. The instrument used to establish a

commission usually determines its funding source. Commissions created by executive order are

often funded from one of the two aforementioned presidential funds. Those commissions created

by official announcement (the most common method) are more likely to be funded through

agency or voluntary contributions from non-governmental sources. There are no restrictions or

obligations if a private source, such as a foundation, funds an independent commission. The

most common form of private support to commissions comes from interest groups doing

Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, pp. 101, 110.
Fisher, The Politics of Shared Power, p. 157.
Wolanin, p. 62.

research without compensation. Finally, in the case of commissions created by statute, which are

infrequent, Congress normally provides the funding as part of the legislation establishing the

commission. Although the President can spend money from his two accounts as he pleases,

Congress clearly retains the power to either cut the amounts available, attach further restrictions,

or eliminate the funds altogether. According to the Independent Offices Appropriations Act of

1946, if a government organization funds a commission, it is then entitled to have at least one

member on the commission. Congress has passed laws allowing executive agencies, including

the White House, to hire temporary experts and consultants and pay their expenses.41

Each of the two branches has budgetary oversight authority over the other regarding

commissions. The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, along with its modification by the

Reorganization Act of 1939, provides for the executive branch, specifically the Bureau of the

Budget (now OMB), to review and revise budget estimates submitted by all departments,

including their independent commissions.42 Congress passed the Federal Advisory Committee

Act in 1972 in an attempt to control the use of presidential independent commissions by issuing

guidelines to the executive branch covering the creation, administration, tasking of, and

responses to commissions. According to Wolanin, “Attempts to control the use of advisory

bodies through requiring congressional authorization for their creation or funding have yielded to

more indirect, and perhaps more effective, accountability through full and systematic disclosure

about them.” The bottom line is that while Congress has been unwilling to limit the President’s

authority to create or fund advisory commissions, it does have the ability to cut off the two

Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, pp. 63-69.
Fisher, The Politics of Shared Power, p. 162.

unrestricted presidential funds and to modify the other legislation through which commissions

have been funded.43


Since independent commissions are not specifically authorized by the Constitution, their

continued establishment stems primarily from tradition. Congress began the tradition, following

the states with regulatory commissions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Presidents began

employing commissions shortly after Congress did. Wolanin explained that the technical

authority of the President and Congress to use independent commissions stems from the right of

the legislative and executive branches to inform themselves for legislative and execution

purposes through various kinds of investigation.44 Yale University Professor Douglas Arnold

cited two Supreme Court decisions, in 1947 and in 1954, regarding the legality of regulatory

commissions to regulate natural gas sales. In both cases, the court determined that regulatory

commissions were indeed authorized to regulate on behalf of Congress.45



The two most important characteristics of any commission are its credibility and

independence. If a commission does not have credibility for whatever reason, then its

recommendations will be ignored (hence, being a waste of time and resources). There are

numerous ways for a commission to lose its credibility, starting with its members and staff. If

the commissioners or staff are perceived to be biased towards one political party, or close to the

President, or connected to an issue through private dealings, then the commission’s credibility

may be lost. Sorenson observed that commissioners must have no stake in the issues dealt with,

Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 71.
Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, pp. 64-65.
Douglas Arnold, The Logic of Congressional Action (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 246.

and that if commissions, overall, are perceived as politically nonaligned, their chances of success

are higher.46 As a chairman of several commissions, Linowes knew the importance of a

commission's credibility and told the others members about it right up front. “Even if the

commission’s recommendations were made in good faith, without the perceived credibility

bolstered by independence and thoroughness, no one would give our findings the kind of

attention essential for action.”47 The way to gain credibility is to have commissioners who are

experts regarding the issue, are well known and respected in their fields, and are perceived as

non-partisan, independent thinkers.


One essential key to achieving credibility is to maintain independence from the branches

of government. To do this, commissioners are technically appointed by the President and

approved by the Senate to prevent the President from stacking a commission in favor of his

preferred outcome. Wolanin noted that the most important presidential authority to exert control

over commissions is the appointment of their members. Candidate members are screened by the

White House to attempt to produce a group likely to favor the direction of presidential policy.48

Linowes, on the other hand, noted that he was often given the authorization by the President to

select commission members he could work with as chairman, and to submit them to the White

House for approval.49 Cohen conducted a study of presidential influence on the ICC over a 20-

year period. He found that even though a President’s appointees vote together with high

frequency, they also tend to vote with appointees of other Presidents at a similar rate. He found

no party blocs or stable bloc patterns over the years on the ICC. He concluded his research

Sorenson, Shutting Down the Cold War, p. 37.
Linowes, Creating Public Policy, p. 138.
Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 75.
Linowes, Creating Public Policy, pp. 68-69, 99, 134.

stating, “Analysis indicates that voting patterns on the ICC do not relate to presidential

appointment.”50 Finally, in the early days of commissions, the President successfully removed

commissioners that were not abiding by his wishes, which adversely affected commission

independence. In the early 1930s, the Supreme Court ruled that the President could no longer

remove a commissioner without cause (e.g., dereliction of duty).51

Final Report

Once an independent commission has concluded its hearings and data analysis, the

members negotiate the recommendations before writing the final report. Once the report is

written, it is disseminated. Linowes submitted his commission reports directly to the President

and Congress, and even though the commissions were terminated, he still followed-up with

congressional testimony and media appearances to discuss the report recommendations. He

noted that it did not matter who the President was or who was in his cabinet, his four commission

reports were always well received and garnered the personal support of the President. His key to

success in this regard was to make recommendations that were easily implemented, incremental,

defendable, and realistic.52 Another key to a successful report is to achieve commission

unanimity in the findings and recommendations. Wolanin noted that a commission reaches

consensus either by natural coalescence, bargaining, or reciprocity, so that, “the overwhelming

majority of commission recommendations are the expression of a unanimous consensus among

commission members.”53 All the recommendations in all four of Linowes’s commission reports

were agreed upon unanimously. Commissioners pursue this unanimity to ensure maximum

impact of the report, and to increase the probability that the recommendations would actually be

Cohen, “Presidential Control,” pp. 65-66.
Doyle, Independent Commissions, pp. 28-29.
Linowes, Creating Public Policy, pp. 48-49, 190.
Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 119.

implemented as policy. However, one must remember that an independent commission’s

recommendations are not binding; the recommendations can be ignored, except in the case of

regulatory commissions where the recommendations can be enforced in federal court.


Congressional oversight of regulatory commissions has been variable at best. Neither

chamber seems to have the time, energy, or resources to deal with commission oversight. North

Carolina State Professor Andrew Taylor hypothesized that the Senate should be more interested

in controlling commissions than the House because: 1) they can afford to do so because of their

longer terms of office; 2) the Constitution provides the Senate with the formal responsibility for

oversight; and, 3) they should be more willing than House members because of their larger

constituencies, and, consequently, broader responsibilities.54 He conducted his research on the

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) between 1975 and 1998, and found that, “for the most part,

little quantitative or qualitative difference in House and Senate oversight of the [FTC].”55 His

rationale for the House being as involved in FTC oversight as the Senate is based on: 1) the

House trying to compensate for its institutional disadvantages, such as a considerable

information deficiency; 2) the size of the House allowing some of its members to specialize more

than Senators, and, 3) the polarization between branches and the growing partisanship within

Congress itself making the House majority less willing to defer FTC oversight to the Senate.56

Despite congressional effort to oversee the work of the regulatory commissions, Congress

and commissions may have both been misled at times over the years. Boise State University

Professor Charlotte Twight wrote an article claiming the FBI and the Federal Communications

Taylor, Andrew J., “Congress as Principal: Exploring Bicameral Differences in Agent Oversight,” Congress & the
Presidency, Vol. 28, No. 2, (Autumn 2001), p.142.
Ibid., p. 153.
Ibid., p. 154.

Commission (FCC) misled Congress regarding invasion of personal privacy through mandatory

telecommunication carrier reporting. She alleged that the FBI defended before Congress in 1994

the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), requiring telecommunica-

tion carriers, including traditional and electronic telephone and wire carriers, to install and

maintain equipment that would enable law enforcement officials to receive information about a

private individual’s communications. She documented the fact that Congress employed some

unorthodox legislative procedures when it suspended the rules in order to pass CALEA.

Moreover, Congress did not question any of the committee members, and neither chamber

recorded the names of the members present or how they voted. She even claimed that FBI

Director Louis Freeh, “repeatedly misled Congress about the FBI’s interpretation of CALEA and

the intentions regarding its use.”57

The FCC’s role in this issue was as final arbiter over the implementation of CALEA.

The FBI testified before the FCC with its “true” intentions regarding CALEA, and the FCC still

decided in its favor on most of the contested issues in August 1999. Twight was very dis-

appointed that the FCC was “rolled” by the FBI because it had the expertise Congress was

lacking to make the “right” call regarding telecommunication personal privacy issues. Of

course, civil rights groups challenged the FCC’s ruling in favor of the FBI’s interpretation of

CALEA, and the U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C.) in August 2000 held that the FCC was correct in

deeming cell phone location to be “call-identifying information,” which was not an invasion of

privacy, and in fact even praised the FCC.58 This may be a case where Congress and the FCC

made the right call, even though many civil rights groups disagree.

Twight, Charlotte, “Conning Congress,” Independent Review, Vol. 6, Issue 2, (Fall 2001), p. 5, 10.
Ibid., p. 14.


To demonstrate the complexities of independent commissions in the 21st century, I

selected the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) congressional independent commission as a

case study. Closing military bases is a highly political issue that has caused the Department of

Defense (DoD) considerable anguish in sustaining a bloated infrastructure that stifles its ability

to acquire new weapon systems. This case study clearly shows how difficult it is to keep

political influences out of an independent commission’s decision-making process — which is

one of the primary motivations for establishing an independent commission in the first place.

Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commissions

In the Quadrennial Defense Review published by DoD in May 1997, Secretary of

Defense William Cohen called for more BRAC independent commissions. “Since the first base

closure round, force structure has come down by 33%. ... During the same period, we will have

reduced domestic infrastructure by 21%. ... We must shed more weight.”59 DoD estimated that

the almost 100 base closures would produce a net savings of about $14 billion by the end of

FY2001, and an estimated savings thereafter of about $5.7 billion each year.60 Congress has

been reluctant to authorize BRAC commissions primarily because of the lost income generated

by military bases for states and districts and the grass-roots electoral opposition from

communities likely to be economically damaged.61

However, Air War College Professor Dave Sorenson found counter-intuitive results when

researching congressmen, representing electorates where bases were closed, who were not

reelected during the election following the base closure. “The 1991-1995 base-closure years

Lockwood, David E. “Military Base Closures: Time for Another Round?,” CRS Report: RL30051, (March 7,
2001), p. 2.
Lockwood, “Military Base Closures,” p. 1.
Lockwood, “Military Base Closures,” p. 1.

reflected…no evidence that base closure was responsible for even a single congressional or

senatorial defeat in the election years following each round.”62

Congress asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to look into DoD’s cost savings

estimates regarding these base closures, believing them to be exaggerated. On 5 April 2002, the

GAO sent its findings to the House of Representatives, stating that, “On the basis of our analysis

of defense budget documentation for fiscal year 2002, the Department of Defense has accrued an

estimated $16.7 billion in savings through fiscal year 2001, an increase over prior estimates. The

Department also expects to gain an estimated $6.6 billion in annual recurring savings thereafter.”

Studies by other federal agencies, to include the Congressional Budget Office and the DoD

Inspector General, have also shown that “BRAC savings are real and substantial.” However,

these cost savings do not account for federal government expenditure of $1.5 billion to assist

communities affected by the closure process, or $3.5 billion in environmental clean-up costs on

the military bases. The GAO visited many of the communities directly affected by major

military base closures and found that all of them were recovering very well, “although not

without difficulty and challenges.”63

To de-politicize the military base closure process, Congress established the BRAC

commission in 1988 as a “special commission” for the Secretary of Defense to report

simultaneously to both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The Secretary of

Defense was also authorized to select the commissioners and the selection criteria. The 1988

BRAC Commission conducted its hearings and deliberations in secrecy, and in fact never even

bothered to visit all the bases it selected for closure. The result was an infuriated Congress,

which submitted revised BRAC legislation in 1990. The Base Closure and Realignment Act of

Sorenson, Shutting Down the Cold War, p. 213.
United States General Accounting Office. Military Base Closures, Report to the Honorable Vic Snyder, House of
Representatives, GAO-02-433 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, April 2002), pp. 2, 4, 8.

1990 established three BRAC commissions, each required to send their recommendations

directly to the President (not the Secretary of Defense), who, upon approval of the list of

recommended realignments and closures, forwarded the list to Congress for its up-or-down

approval. The President (again, not the Secretary of Defense) was given the authority to select

the commissioners with the advice and consent of the Senate. However, the Secretary of

Defense still had the authority to set the selection criteria. The three BRAC commissions of the

1990s reached a high level of institutionalization due to overlapping membership, a common

methodology, and a corporate memory of lessons learned.64

Unfortunately, according to many analysts, the BRAC independent commissions were

anything but non-partisan. Sorenson noted that members of Congress tried to influence BRAC

commissioners and staff to accept their base preferences with few changes, to influence the

selection of BRAC members, and to sway the outcome. During Congressional hearings on

BRAC 1991, Colorado Democratic Representative Patricia Schroeder noted that, “of the 21

major bases slated to be closed, 19 were in districts represented by Democrats, and that 99

percent of the civilian job losses from those closures were in Democratic districts.” Both

Congress and the President interfered with the BRAC process in the 1990s. New Jersey

legislators managed to prevent key bases from being closed in their state by changing the

selection criteria at the last minute to prevent any challenges. President Clinton politicized the

process by delaying the closure of Air Force logistics centers in California and Texas until after

the presidential elections in 1996.65

The 1990 legislation attempted to institutionalize the process by tying the selection

criteria to military requirements. As such, the 1990 legislation required the Secretary of Defense

Sorenson, Shutting Down the Cold War, p. 36.
Sorenson, Shutting Down the Cold War, pp. 39, 46.

to specify the criteria reflecting “military value” with reference to force structure and threat

estimates. Of course, the Secretary of Defense delegated the responsibility to each of the

services to set their own criteria and then conduct the evaluation of their bases. The service

Secretaries, however, felt that each service should be reduced at similar rates over the three

BRACs. The Air Force had the most bases (with 405), followed by the Navy (with 253), and

then the Army (with 210). Although the Air Force lost the fewest bases overall, it lost the most

bases in 1991 (14), while the Navy lost the most in 1993 (17), followed by the Army in 1995

(10) — as prearranged by the service Secretaries. Hence, Sorenson’s bottom line, that political

and service biases significantly influenced the BRAC commissions, is supported by the evidence.

Despite that, 97 major military bases were still closed between 1988 and 1995, which is still

better than none during the period from 1977 to 1988.66

Commissions are not a panacea for achieving innovation in federal policy. …

Neither are commissions a sham; they have made important independent
contributions in substantive proposals, facilitated consensus building, and helped
to persuade other political actors to agree with their proposals.67
Dr. Thomas Wolanin, University of Wisconsin


Overall, I believe the track record of independent and regulatory commissions since the

late 1880s has been good. If they had not met the general expectations of the President or

Congress over the years, then neither branch of government would continue to spend valuable

resources establishing them. However, that does not mean that all the commissions established

were successful. Wolanin analyzed 99 commissions between 1945-1974 and discovered:

[A]bout two-thirds of the commissions have received at least some substantial

implementation for their recommendations, about seven in ten some strong public

Ibid., pp. 35, 48, 49, 206, 208.
Thomas Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), p. 142.

support from the President, and about eight in ten some kind of favorable
response from the President. Commission reports are not routinely ignored or
buried by Presidents. Their recommendations are very often a substantial element
in proposed or actually accomplished changes in federal policy.68

That does not mean that partisan politics have not undermined the best intentions of

independent commissions. As discussed earlier, Sorenson found significant partisan politics

regarding the BRAC independent commissions, and yet, they managed to accomplish the goal of

closing close to 100 military bases, thereby saving DoD several billions of dollars. On the other

hand, partisan politics has managed to cause commission recommendations to not get imple-

mented, resulting in perceived commission failure. For example, any time an issue involves

Congress itself, like ethics, term limits, or salaries, the preferred method for Congress is to

establish an independent commission, then have dissatisfied members discredit the recom-

mendations for individual political gain. Regarding congressional pay raises, the Constitution

only indicated that members of Congress should receive compensation for their services. Hence,

Congress periodically voted itself a pay raise. However, this was always a painful process,

considering the constituents back home did not earn half of what members of Congress wanted

to pay themselves with taxpayers’ money. In 1967, Congress established a mechanism utilizing

independent commissions to determine what its federal salaries should be at fair market value

every four years. The “quadrennial” commission recommendations would go to the President for

his approval before being sent back to Congress for final approval. Since Congress was still

reluctant to vote directly on its own pay raise, it established a “legislative veto” within the

legislation.69 If no Congressman objected to the President’s recommendations (which was

usually the independent commission’s recommendations), then, after a short period of time (in

Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions, p. 139.
Part of the 1967 Federal Salaries Act.

this case, 30 days), they would automatically become law — without a direct vote by either

chamber of Congress.

Unfortunately, two things happened to kill this unique mechanism to periodically raise

congressional salaries. First, in 1977, Congress passed the Bartlett amendment that required a

roll-call vote on the President’s salary recommendation. This set Congress back to where it was

before 1967 when members could not escape directly voting for their own pay raises.70 Second,

in 1983, the Supreme Court, in its Chadha v. United States ruling, declared that legislative vetoes

were unconstitutional. The quadrennial commission subsequently became moribund. Finally,

the best examples of where commissions can go astray are found among regulatory commissions.

Harvard Graduate School Professor Tom McGraw in 1975 published a study on regulatory

commissions in which he uncovered numerous inefficiencies costing the American taxpayers

billions of dollars. Regarding the ICC, he found that, “Its policies of minimum rate regulation,

its reluctance to allow market forces to select optimal modes for particular freights, its custodial

preservation of obsolete services, were ill serving the industries concerned and making a

mockery of the ‘public interest’.”71 By the 1970s, the cost of the ICC’s inefficiencies in surface

freight transport was estimated to be between four and ten billion dollars every year. McGraw

found a similar situation with the regulatory commissions overseeing the airline industry and

even the natural gas industry. “By the 1970s, the policies had injured the entire [U.S.] economy,

as the [natural gas] energy problem became acute and one important fuel source lay poorly

developed because of regulatory constraint.”72 He concluded that regulatory commissions often

came into existence with broad popular support, but, once established, readily responded to

Hartman, Robert W. and Weber, Arnold R. The Rewards of Public Service (Washington DC: The Brookings
Institution, 1980), pp. 87-88.
McCraw, Thomas K., “Regulation in America,” Business History Review, Vol. 49, Issue 2, (Summer 1975),
Ibid., pp. 172-73.

pressure from organized interest groups. He also concluded that regulatory commissions, like

any other organization, promoted policies that would ensure their institutional survival and

growth. “[C]ommissions’ highest loyalties sometimes went neither to the ‘public interest’ nor to

the regulated industry, but to regulation itself. Regulation was their business, and they did not

intend to close up shop.”73


The bottom line is that the advantages of independent commissions clearly outweigh the

disadvantages. They offer Congress the opportunity to regulate industries that span across

multiple states, avoid the revenge of aggrieved voters, and solve complex problems efficiently

and cost-effectively. For the President, they also provide sound solutions to resolve disputes

between the executive and legislative branches of government, or insightful recommendations to

technical problems. For the public, they provide perceived non-partisan recommendations to

difficult problems or crises. In any case, there are no viable alternatives available for either the

executive or legislative branch to utilize when a complex problem or regulatory requirement

arises. Independent and regulatory commissions will likely continue to be an integral part of the

legislative and policy-making process in the United States Government, whether or not they are

successful most of the time.

Ibid., pp. 180-82.



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Doyle, Wilson K. Independent Commissions in the Federal Government. Chapel Hill:

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Hartman, Robert W. and Weber, Arnold R. The Rewards of Public Service. Washington
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Linowes, David F. Creating Public Policy: The Chairman’s Memoirs of Four

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Sorenson, David S. Shutting Down the Cold War. NYC: St Martin’s Press, 1998.

Wolanin, Thomas R. Presidential Advisory Commissions. Madison: University of

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