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How We Get to the Truth

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When Barack Obama needed to know what caused the BP oil disaster and how we might keep something like that from happening again, he did what presidents stretching back to George Washington have done when confronted with a vexing challenge: he named an independent commission.

From the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 to last year's BP blowout, crisis and controversy have prompted presidents to seek sage counsel from trusted experts. How much difference these commissions make depends on why they are formed, who is appointed to them, and what they report once their work is done.

Presidents sometimes impanel a commission to build support for a specific agenda, but the tactic seldom works. The President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security didn't win many converts to George W. Bush's hopes for privatizing the national retirement insurance program.

Commissions meant to deflect criticism rarely work out either. After Ohio National Guard troops shot and killed four students during an antiwar protest at Kent State University in 1970, President Richard Nixon hoped to get cover from his Commission on Campus Unrest. The panel, though, largely blamed the administration for national divisions that were, it said, "as deep as any since the Civil War."

Some presidential commissions have, however, helped to guide the country toward needed change in the face of great opportunity, challenge, or risk. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or the 9/11 Commission, formed by President Bush and Congress found flaws in the way our government dealt with terrorist threats and recommended substantial change, including the creation of the office of director of national intelligence to integrate the work of 16 separate U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (which included NRDC President Frances Beinecke) had a modern precedent in function and task: the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, assembled by Jimmy Carter in 1979 after a critical loss of coolant caused a meltdown in part of the nuclear core at the Pennsylvania power plant. The commission recommended sweeping changes in the nuclear power industry, stronger safeguards to protect the public, and reforms in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In response, the industry created the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations to set safety standards, audit plants, and hold utility companies accountable by grading their performance. The NRC was reorganized to be more effective, and Congress strengthened protections to guard against future nuclear accidents.

What were the keys to its success? First, the public understood the crisis, and this spurred politicians to act. Second, the commission was seen as bipartisan, so its motivations and advice were credible. Finally, its recommendations were specific.

The work of the BP panel met these same standards of success, says Jordan Tama, a research fellow with the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies: "It's a bipartisan commission that was unanimous, its recommendations were specific, and, as a result, its proposals can provide a focal point for debate in Congress."

The oil spill commission's recommendations are strikingly similar to the findings of the Three Mile Island commission.They call for changes in attitude and oversight on the part of the industry itself, stronger safeguards from Congress, a reorganization of the government oversight agency, and administration action to ensure that regulators have the tools they need to enforce the law. As with presidential panels dating to the dawn of the Republic, the oil spill commission can show us where we need to go. It's up to the rest of us, working together -- the oil industry, the Congress, the administration, all of us -- to take the good work this commission has done and act on its recommendations.

image of Bob Deans
Bob Deans spent 30 years in the newspaper industry as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications and is a former president of the White House Correspondents' Association. Currently NRDC's associate director of communicatio... READ MORE >