Let's break down the numbers
Currently there are just 23 lawmakers and 30 staff overseeing this entire apparatus in the House – and around a third of those staff act in a support capacity, doing secretarial or sysadmin work. Likewise in the Senate, with 19 lawmakers (4 ex officio) and 43 staff. Both committees have long complained about limited resources.
Of the 535 members of Congress, only a single one has an advisor on intelligence matters – Senator Ron Wyden. By contrast, there are 744 advisors covering everything from tribal affairs to transportation to tax across the rest of Congress (and that is only a drop in the nearly 50,000 Congressional staffers overall).
Of course, there are good reasons why many of the staff on intelligence committees themselves come from the spy agencies: the nature of the work requires security clearances and a depth of knowledge that is very hard to build up without having worked in the field.
But considering that a significant part of the spy agencies' actual job is to place people in sensitive positions and/or identify good sources of information in confidential settings, it is a virtual certainty that a good number of the staffers looking to oversee spy agencies are themselves working for the self-same agencies.
With Congressmen (and women) spread thinly across many different areas of national politics, they are largely dependent on committee staffers to carry out work and to present them with information that they can act on.
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Adding to the problem is the revolving door of employment that Washington, DC, has become renowned for: an individual moving from a government department or company, to the federal agency overseeing that department/company, and then getting a job with them again when they leave.
All of this combined with limited resources to cover a large area – it becomes increasingly clear that Congress is simply not capable of adequately overseeing a highly focused and extremely well-resourced intelligence community.
Which is, of course, a situation that the CIA, NSA and others are very happy about.
As to the upshot of all of this, the situation is perhaps most clearly visible on the issue that is foremost on the minds of the intelligence agencies right now: retaining Section 702.
On the website of the House Intelligence Committee, there is a dedicated section for the issue in its masthead alongside much broader topics like "legislation," "about" and "news."
That 702 section leads to four documents, two of which are named "Myth vs Fact" and purport to tell the truth about the program, but which parrot the exact same arguments put forward by the security agencies themselves. One is a link to an article that is a full-throated defense of the spying program and its illegal database on US citizens. And the last document is a "fact sheet" that contains a number of provable incorrect or misleading statements about the program.
So if it turns out that Congress does not act to stop the NSA from gathering information on US citizens under legislation that specifically rules it out, and refuses to stop the FBI from accessing a vast database of information on US citizens gathered illegally through this program, then you will know why.
Is there any counter-balance to this system? The only effective one emerged following the Snowden revelations: public outcry and pressure on Congress to act. So if you have read this article to this point but do not contact your Congressional representatives and complain about it to them – this month – then you need to accept that you have forfeited your right to complain about government surveillance now and into the future. ®