Thursday, December 13, 2012

A National Security Committee?

Many an internet comment has lamented the inability of the US Congress to effectively constrain the executive branch in the realm of foreign policy. Major reform efforts, like the 1947 National Security Act (NSA) or the 1973 War Powers Resolution occasionally reassert Congressional power in the making of foreign policy, but Presidential focus on foreign affairs and internal divisions in Congress seem to inevitably lead to greater concentrations of authority in executive agencies if not the White House. Indeed some efforts, such as the NSA or the Goldwater-Nichols reforms to the Department of Defense, may have ended up empowering various executive actors (through the executive National Security Council or the military's regional commands) and thereby restricted the ability of Congress to exercise effective oversight and control.

One possible solution would be for Congress to mimic the executive and engage in a more centralized process for controlling the legislative branch's foreign policy agenda. Although bicameralism will often lead to partisan splits over control of Congress, as seen in the current Congress and the next, a committee structure that reduced intra-Congressional veto points and forced a degree of institutional linkage between the various committee leaders may improve Congress's ability to effectively respond to foreign affairs.

One structural move towards a more coherent committee structure would include the convening of a standing National Security Committee (or some similar term) in each chamber, formed chairpersons and ranking members of the standing committees charged with oversight of intelligence agencies, the armed forces and diplomatic efforts. The Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Minority Leaders from each chamber would have at least ex-officio status in their relevant committees, while the leaders from the committees formally overseeing immigration, the Department of Homeland Security and international trade would all make plausible candidates for inclusion; an extra member for the majority party would allow for a modicum of partisan control. The NSCs would have oversight authority over the committees from which their members derived and would have necessary authority to consider legislation or other matters on the behalf of those committees as well. Non-security issues would likely require a distinct set of committees, particularly since economic or social policy can quickly have strong and widely dispersed domestic constituencies that may be lacking in diplomatic or intelligence issues.

What might such a system accomplish? The ability of any single committee chair to block legislation would fall, since widespread support would Congressional leaders to advance the issue through a formal committee process by means of an NSC. Committee members may find themselves somewhat disempowered over their own fiefs but would gather potentially substantial sway over a wide array of issues outside their normal jurisdiction. In all gathering Congress's most powerful voices in security policy into a formal framework for assessing US foreign-security policy should improve both domestic US politics of and the actual conduct of US foreign relations.

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