Steve Chapman

The privacy board's conclusions are likely to have even less effect on policy. This group believes the mass collection of phone data is illegal under federal law? It uncovered not "a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation"?

So what? If a bunch of experts say one thing and the spies say the opposite, you can expect the president to side with the spooks a lot more often than not.

A similar problem exists with respect to the elections panel, which obviously did its best to decide what changes would be fair, reasonable and good for democracy. But we need this group to tell us all that like we need it to tell us when the sun is shining. The knowledge is present. What is absent among many elected representatives is the desire to act on it.

The decision of many states to reduce voting opportunities and reject electronic registration was not an act of carelessness or ignorance. It was typically part of a deliberate Republican strategy to curb the voting strength of racial minorities, poor people, immigrants and students -- in other words, people who have the regrettable tendency to vote Democratic. Noble ideals are no match for political self-interest.

That's why setting up independent bodies to assess the evidence and reach rational conclusions about policy is usually a waste of time and effort. The documents are a glorious feast for editorial writers but a bowl of day-old dog food to the people who make policy. As a rule, the function of the panels is either to delay action on issues lawmakers want to duck or to provide a harmless outlet for the critics of policies that are set in stone.

Ultimately, they're the equivalent of those participation trophies handed out to every kid who plays in a sports league. They look nice on the shelf, but you can't take them seriously.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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