Why Congress is AWOL on National Security Policy
Has the legislative branch abdicated its responsibility in US foreign policy?
Matt Bennett and Mieke Eoyang, both former Washington staffers, explore “Why Congress is AWOL on national security policymaking today.” Contrasting Rep. Ron Dellums’ two-decade-long campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, they argue that today’s Members lack the staying power to exert major influence.
The American public, with its fleeting attention span, seems to focus on a problem only for the length of one news cycle, looking for neat resolution quickly. But foreign and security policy often moves at a different pace. Change takes time. America has only so many levers with which to move the world.
This disconnect between public expectations and practical reality has meant that Congress, when it gets involved at all, often looks to act within a blink. Members offer legislation with catchy titles that take haphazard steps to address devilishly tricky long-term problems. Not surprisingly, the outcomes are unsatisfying and rarely do much to solve the problem.
Yes, Congress will do oversight—but too often that gets hijacked by political sideshows like the never-ending Benghazi blame game. What members do not do much anymore is dive deep into the major questions and prepare themselves to challenge the White House—where so much of this decision-making has become centralized—or the State Department and the security agencies over the details of executive-branch policy decisions and come up with ideas of their own.
Changes in the way that Congress does business have contributed to this decline. The incessant demands to raise money for their campaigns and the new normal of flying back to their districts on Thursday and staying away from Washington until Monday mean that members simply do not have the time to dig deeply into some of these issues. When they do turn to policy, the low salience of national security issues in political campaigns—“It’s the economy, stupid”—means their staff and advisers want their energies focused largely on domestic concerns. In turn, this means that when members take the time to go overseas, they risk being accused of taking a junket, rather than seeking to better understand the world.
Within the institution itself, the centralization of power in both parties and both chambers in leadership has eroded the role of many committees where members have an opportunity to dig deep. And the sharp polarization in Congress has left fewer members willing to work together across the aisle on big initiatives.
Now, all of those things are true. But, even at the time that Dellums was a House freshman, there were cries of an “imperial presidency” with regard to foreign policy. Going back at least to FDR’s time in office, foreign policymaking—and especially the war power—had shifted almost completely to the White House and the national security staff. As the pace of decisionmaking sped up, Congress became less influential.
Still, it’s not hard to think of major Congressional interventions in national security policy in the 1970s and 1980s. The War Powers Resolution. The Church Committee. The Boland Amendment. The Goldwater-Nichols and Cohen-Nunn reforms. Congress took an active role in backing the Afghan mujahadeen against the Soviet invaders, the fights in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the first Gulf War, and the reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Still, they’ve largely deferred to the executive—or the executive has simply gone around Congress—for most of the modern era.
Bennett and Eoyang conclude,
Congress is abdicating its role in security and foreign affairs policymaking to the executive. Yet today’s world is too volatile and complex for Congress to limit itself to the pursuit of talking points and short-term solutions. We live in a time in which our defense, intelligence, diplomatic and foreign-aid infrastructures are in need of overhaul, repair or, at least, reexamination. We live in a world in which Iran is both an implacable foe and a co-combatant against the Islamic State; the Arab Spring has turned to winter; a North Korean despot has nuclear arms and a cyber army; Pakistan is at war with itself; and Russia is occupying Ukraine. The resolution of these issues will not come from a monthlong campaign of airstrikes, nor will lasting change come simply through occupation by American troops.
In fairness, Congress did participate in a significant reorganization of our national security apparatus in the wake of 9/11, most notably the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the restructuring of our airport security system, and a modest reshuffling of the intelligence community. There’s also been the USA Patriot Act and various other efforts.
Certainly, Congress is at least debating what to do about Iran’s nuclear program. And the administration, as administrations are wont to do, is arguing that Congress is mucking things up and endangering the great work being done with the administration. Nor has Congress been silent on Pakistan or Russia. But our national security experts—whether in government or out—have no good solution for these crises. It’s almost unfathomable that Congress will come up with one.
To a large extent, Congress is seemingly ineffective on national security affairs because, well, it’s ineffective. It’s ineffective by design and has been rendered much moreso by the speed of modern communications and the imposition of a parliamentary style of lockstep partisan voting upon a system that’s supposed to force cross-cutting compromise.
It’s also gotten worse partly because it’s gotten more democratic. In the era Bennett and Eoyang pine for, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from 1955 to 1995 with no interruptions and the GOP only controlled it for two Congresses from 1931 to 1995. The Senate was more competitive but Democrats still controlled it, often with filibuster-proof majorities, from 1955 to 1981 and 1987 to 1995. While there was doubtless a laudable civility that came with that order, the committee chairmen were mandarins with inordinate power and the minority had every incentive to compromise given their permanent status in that role. It’s not a slam dunk that that was better.