Congressional Dysfunction Undermining U.S. National Security, Argues New CFR Report

November 15, 2010

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As planning begins for the 112th Congress, a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) warns of the potential national security implications of a dysfunctional Congress.  “Congress’s inability to tackle tough problems, both domestic and international, has serious national security consequences, in part because it leads the world to question U.S. global leadership,” argues CFR Vice President of Washington Initiatives  Kay King. “When Congress fails to perform, national security suffers thanks to ill-considered policies, delayed or inadequate resources, and insufficient personnel,” she adds.

In the Council Special Report Congress and National Security, King analyzes the legislative body’s performance in the national security arena over the past two decades. She explores the internal obstacles, such as outdated rules and procedures, obsolete committee structures, relentless schedules, and diminished expertise, as well as the external impediments, such as the mounting challenges brought on by globalization and an increasingly polarized domestic political landscape, that have come together to hinder Congress’s constitutional role in the formulation and oversight of U.S. national security policy.

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“It is time for Congress to update its rules and return to the practice of using them, along with an orderly legislative process, to advance solutions, not obstruct them,” King argues. “The time is ripe, because there are a large number of relatively new lawmakers in both chambers who want change and are less invested in the current system than their longer-serving colleagues.”

To improve the quality of Congress’s involvement in national security affairs, King recommends that Congress enact reforms in five critical areas:

Prompt and inclusive action on budgets and legislation. Congress should return to firm adherence to the legislative process and end practices that obstruct, delay, or shut out the minority.

  • In the Senate, this requires changes to cloture rules to end or limit debate, and, in the House, a reduction in the use of closed and restricted rules.
  • In both chambers, this requires enforcing budget timetables and rules

These reforms promise to facilitate passage of all twelve annual appropriations bills by both chambers, as well as passage of State Department and foreign assistance authorization bills, actions that King argues are long overdue.

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Timely and knowledgeable advice and consent on treaties and nominees for senior government posts. King urges the Senate to take its advice-and-consent role more seriously by ending its hostage taking of presidential nominees and by voting on treaties within a reasonable amount of time.

  • Reforms to the practice of placing holds on presidential nominations should be enacted in order to make them more difficult to undertake, limit their duration, and provide transparency about the senators involved.
  • To act more swiftly on treaties, Congress should vote on the advice-and-consent resolution no later than two years after the treaty’s submission to the Senate.

Realistic and effective oversight. In order to better address the fast-moving, interrelated threats the United States faces today, Congress should revamp the committee structure and the authorization and appropriation procedures in both houses to integrate the work of the armed services, foreign affairs, and intelligence committees through permanent or ad hoc mechanisms.

Overcoming the expertise gap. King urges Congress to become a fully informed deliberative body in the national security realm by increasing educational resources for staffers and lawmakers alike, reducing committee assignments for each lawmaker, and engaging in overseas travel to increase their understanding of foreign countries and cultures.  To provide the time necessary to do so, King proposes that Congress return from a three-day to a five-day Washington work week.

Bolstering the congressional-executive branch partnership on national security policy. King advises, “Both branches must commit fully to a consultative process based on mutual respect and a willingness to partner.” The executive branch could also “encourage a strategic, integrated approach to national security matters and incentivize Congress to follow suit” by offering a consolidated national security budget that ties the defense and international affairs budgets in a single document. The executive branch should also commit to providing national security information to Congress on a timely and consistent basis.

“The period beginning after the 2010 midterm elections and continuing as the 112th Congress gets under way presents the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate with the perfect opportunity to tackle those recommendations,” King concludes.

For the full text of the report, visit: www.cfr.org/congress_national_security_csr.

Kay King is vice president of Washington initiatives at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). King joined CFR from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where she was vice president for external relations, responsible for leading strategic communications and managing the center’s interactions with Congress, the executive branch, the media, and the international policy community. Before joining CSIS, she served as director of congressional and public affairs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, as president of King Strategies, and as deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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