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How Congress Erodes National Security

Interviewee: Kay King, Vice President, Washington Initiatives
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org
November 16, 2010

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The increasingly contentious relationship between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress is often cited as an impediment to domestic policymaking. But the chamber's fractious atmosphere has also undermined its foreign policy role. CFR's Kay King, author of a new Council Special Report on Congress and National Security points to inaction on foreign aid legislation and holds on high-ranking presidential nominees as just two areas where Congress has abused or neglected its authority with consequences for U.S. operations and image abroad. Congress has also experienced a declining pool of expertise in important foreign policy areas such as arms control, and it remains ill-equipped to prepare the country for coping with the many overlapping foreign policy challenges wrought by globalization, King says. She urges leaders of the new Congress to return to rules of order and emulate some of the ways the executive branch is taking on the cross-jurisdictional challenges, especially the State Department and Defense Department.

Your report portrays a dysfunctional, politicized Congress that's unable or unwilling to assume it's responsibilities in some vital areas of national security. What areas should Americans be most concerned about?

When Congress is unable to tackle any of America's problems, whether  in the domestic or international realm, it really leads the world to question U.S. global leadership. But then when you zero in on the national security arena, Congress' lack of attention to national security issues results in policies that are ill-considered or provide inadequate resources to achieve our objectives around the world. In some cases, for example with holds [when a senator can hold back a presidential nominee from being considered], it keeps us from having adequate representation in world capitals and from having the leadership we need in our national security positions in the federal government.

You mention in the report the impact on diplomacy and development issues. How have these been affected by the way Congress functions today?

In the Senate, for example, for the last twenty-five years, there has been no comprehensive foreign assistance bill [enacted]. Even though there have been bills passed in the House a few times, they have not advanced to being approved by both houses. As a result, the country has not had a foreign assistance bill since 1985, and that is a bill that gives guidance to USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and the State Department on how to implement programs overseas in the development area. That's a huge shortcoming of the current system, and it's reflective of how the breakdown in Congress affects the national security realm.

Does this send a message abroad that the United States doesn't take this seriously?

Yes. Also, for example, right now in Afghanistan we're at a point where the U.S. military wants to hand off to the State Department and USAID to allow them to go ahead with the work of developing civil society and governance and help develop the economic structure in Afghanistan. Well, after twenty-five years of not sufficiently funding and building capacity at the agencies of the U.S. government that are supposed to do that--USAID and, to a lesser extent, the State Department --they really don't have the capacity to take over from the Department of Defense and do the things that need to be done. That's a real setback for our government and our goals in Afghanistan.

Your report touches on an imbalance between the ways defense issues are appropriated and overseen and the way issues like diplomacy and development are handled. How has this sort of distortion come about?

This dichotomy between funding for diplomacy and development versus funding for defense is something that's been evolving over time. To be fair to Congress, the American people do not have a great interest, on a day-to-day basis, in diplomacy and development. That is reflected in, therefore, the priorities of legislators. They do not put time and effort into funding, because there's not a constituency for State Department and foreign assistance programs.

On the other hand, legislators are very supportive of the military and make sure that every year a defense authorization is done--although one caveat: That might not happen this year for the first time in decades. Also, large weapons systems can provide jobs in constituencies around the country, because they can be built all over the United States. As a result, a lot of these programs bring funding and jobs to different congressional districts, and members of Congress naturally support that. So, it's easier to support a defense spending bill for those domestic reasons than it is to fund a development program overseas.

[T]he country has not had a foreign assistance bill since 1985, and that is a bill that gives guidance to USAID and the State Department on how to implement programs overseas in the development area. That's a huge shortcoming.

You cite a broad shortage of knowledge on national security issues. To cite an example, let's go to the arms control world where there's about to be more debate in the Senate on the new START treaty, but also on nuclear security issues.

That's a really good example, because twenty years ago, one could easily trip over the many arms control experts who were on the Hill. But there hasn't been as much interest in those issues in the last decade, so as a result, young people in graduate school and coming out of college and just people coming up to the Hill are not inclined to focus on those issues. Likewise, members of Congress, because [arms control] is not an issue for their constituents, are not focused on it and so there's no incentive for them to become steeped in what are some very intricate sets of issues. As a result, you still do have a handful of very knowledgeable expert committee staff members and a few members of Congress who are still serving from the days that this was a hot topic, who know quite a bit about it. That does not mean that the other 410 or 415 members of Congress know much, if anything at all, about [arms control] issues, and of course they're going to have to vote. [That's especially important] in the Senate where a lot of these arms control issues come in the form of treaties, which are the domain of the Senate.

Since the last time the Senate dealt with Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, there are very few senators with any knowledge on that issue.

The last time we did a count, before the current midterm elections, there were something like forty-seven members of the Senate who had never had to vote on an arms control treaty or had not been in the Senate when CTBT was voted on in 1999, and now that number has probably grown significantly larger since the midterm elections.

There's been a raft of new people elected into the House, and newcomers coming to the Senate. Does this offer an opportunity to start grappling with some of the problems with Congress?

What this study does is to look at the fact that there are external factors such as globalization, which have really made the world a much more complicated place and put greater demands on members of Congress to understand the world. [There is also the] changing U.S. political landscape, which has created a much more polarized environment and made Congress a much more partisan place and therefore a much more difficult place in which to get things done and where now foreign policy and defense matters are sometimes held hostage to partisan issues.

My focus on recommendations for the future is on those things that institutionally Congress itself can do--that is, to make changes to its rules, to its structure, to its procedures. These are things that can be done, hopefully, relatively easily. And that has to start with the leadership in both the House and the Senate. And right now, after the midterm elections but before the new Congress begins, is when the leadership sits down with its respective caucuses and make decisions about things like rules changes. Now is the optimum time for  Congress to start considering these recommendations.

You mentioned a return to "regular order." Can you talk a little bit about that?

It's really a return to what we all grew up learning about--how a bill becomes a law--and it has to do with the process where committees hold hearings on an issue, they [draft a bill], mark it up in committee, they vote on it in committee, then the bill goes to the floor where the full chamber--either the House or the Senate--considers the bill, debates the bill, votes on it. The voted-on bill in each house goes to a conference between the two houses that try to sort out any differences, and then the final conference bill gets voted on by both chambers. Once that's approved, it goes to the president for signature into law. That often does not happen. All sorts of things get in the way of that, including filibusters, which require bills to be set aside. In the House, there are all sorts of rules that can be utilized that makes it much harder for the minority to have a say in legislation. When the minority party does not get to have a say on legislation, then the legislation that goes to the Senate is often so skewed it has very little chance to succeed there. If some of these procedures that get in the way of moving bills forward are changed, that will allow the regular order to proceed and, hopefully, will allow the twelve appropriations bills to get done every year like they're supposed to, and will allow authorization bills that are not getting done--like the foreign assistance bill--to get done.

There are all sorts of procedural changes that could take place, including fixing the committee structure, which right now is very stovepiped. Defense and foreign policy [committees] only occasionally talk to each other, even though they have a lot of overlapping issues..

There are all sorts of other procedural changes that could take place as well, including fixing the committee structure, which right now is very stovepiped. Defense and foreign policy [committees] only occasionally talk to each other, even though they have a lot of overlapping issues. We're seeing how Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton and Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates cooperate more and more and are looking to find ways to better integrate the three Ds of defense, diplomacy, and development. If the executive branch is doing that, it makes sense for the legislative branch to kind of mirror that trend.

Can the executive branch have any role in congressional reform other than advising?

I don't think the executive branch, because of separation of powers, can do anything more than set an example. If the Congress sees that it works much better  to have an integrated approach, then they might decide it's worthwhile to follow suit. One thing the executive branch could do is, for example, instead of send up [to the Hill] a budget that's separate for the international affairs piece (the 150 piece) and the 050 piece, (which is the defense piece), they could send up a consolidated international affairs and defense budget. That, hopefully, would get Congress to respond in kind, but there's no guarantee that they will.

You're a longtime watcher of Congress, as a former aide to Senator, now Vice President, Biden. Given the current politicization in Washington, can these national security issues resonate enough to actually bring about reform from Congress itself?

In the midterm elections, it was very clear that the American people were not only dissatisfied with what was happening in Washington but also with how things were getting done. Looking at that, [my hope is that] Congress will really seriously consider ways to fix itself. A lot of these changes [I am recommending] are broad institutional procedural and rules changes that are not directly related to national security but will have an impact on [Congress getting its] national security house in order. Some of the other recommendations pertain specifically to a unified national security budget. Hopefully, Congress will see as the executive branch starts to do these things that it only makes sense to try and mirror what the executive branch is doing.

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