By Military analyst
updated 7/31/2007 10:28:21 AM ET 2007-07-31T14:28:21

Say what you want about government, you have to admit that it can do at least one thing very well — convene commissions.

Derived from the Latin word that means "delegation of business,” a commission occasionally makes some sense. In a complicated environment in which lots of related things have to be done, you can accomplish tasks efficiently by ceding authority to a group to make and execute policies on narrowly defined subjects.

Don't want the entire government supervising the financial markets? Create the Securities and Exchange Commission. The mechanism of electoral politics too complicated? Let the Federal Electoral Commission keep an eye on things. Similarly, we have the Federal Communications Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and scores of others.

All these bodies have one thing in common: They have authority. They can make rules within their charters, and they can enforce them, too.

Recently, there has been a spate of commissions with the responsibility only to study a subject. They have had no real authority. They look at a problem and make recommendations, but because they then disappear forever, they aren't really commissions, are they?

However, this doesn't mean that they don't have some long-lasting effect. They are a bit like tornadoes: They do their damage and then disintegrate. For example, the 9/11 Commission (actually, The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States) observed, among other things, that our intelligence apparatus is ineffective because we have too many disparate intelligence organizations, and that we need a director of national intelligence. In an attempt to appear to be doing something about terrorism, without actually doing anything useful, Bush and the Congress acted, and now we have a director of national intelligence—essentially just another bureaucratic impediment to producing intelligence.

The first director was John Negroponte. He is a seasoned diplomat and no fool, and it seems that he quickly concluded the position was, to paraphrase the long-departed Vice President John Nance Garner, "not worth a warm bucket of spit.” Negroponte couldn't get out of there fast enough and is now back at the State Department.

But last week, in a demonstration that there is an exception to every rule, a bipartisan commission made 35 useful recommendations to improve the health care of veterans. And instead of adding to veterans' woes by creating more bureaucratic structure, many of the recommendations involve streamlining the cumbersome process veterans must negotiate to get benefits they deserve.

One of the principal reasons for this commission's success is that it recognized something every veteran already knew — bureaucracy was making veterans' lives miserable. And so one of the commission's goals was to eliminate bureaucracy rather than to create more of it. If you just add functions to an existing structure, you'll just make things worse, as happened with the creation of the office of the director of national intelligence. When you decide at the beginning to get rid of red tape, you have a good chance of success.

Another reason for the commission's success was its leadership. Donna Shalala was secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, and she has a thorough understanding of the subject. Her co-chair is former Sen. Bob Dole, who, as a young soldier in World War II, was grievously wounded.

Together, they appear to have made an ideal team, but Dole's personality probably had the most striking influence on the panel's making viable recommendations. Dole is an old curmudgeon with a low threshold of pain for nonsense. He does not suffer idiots, and he has a particularly strong disdain for the impediments of bureaucracy.

So, if you want a commission to work, give it authority. And if you can't give it authority, make sure that the commissioners are curmudgeons who care more about getting things done than they care about anything else.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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