Lee Hamilton: Congress falls short on national security

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

Our system is based on the premise that better policy emerges if the President and Congress work together. It depends on Congress holding executive policies up to the light and weighing in with its own concerns.

Wherever you stood on Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster to delay John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director, or on the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Brennan and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, they all serve as a reminder of just how feeble Congress has proven to be when it comes to foreign policy.

This wasn’t immediately obvious, of course. Paul’s speech questioned whether there are limits on the President’s power to use drones to kill Americans who’ve been declared “enemy combatants.” But the CIA and military have been using drones overseas for years and this was the first time Congress really pondered the issue. That’s a measure of its dereliction, not of stepping up to the plate. Why has it taken so long to see significant congressional review of the President’s power to use drones?

Meanwhile, if you followed the confirmation hearings, you’d have to conclude that Congress thinks U.S. foreign policy centers on Israel, Cuba and the destroyed consulate in Benghazi, Libya. On the long list of significant foreign policy issues confronting the White House — the rise of China, a war looming with Iran, increased tensions on the Korean peninsula, the fragmentation of Syria, Libya, the spread of Al Qaeda to northern Africa — there’s mostly been silence from the Congress.

Our strategic framework agreement with Iraq? The agreement we’re negotiating with Afghanistan? The key issue of when, where, and how we commit American forces abroad? Congress has been missing in action.

This is not how it’s supposed to be. Our Constitution gives Congress strong levers for dealing with foreign policy. It has oversight of the executive branch, and can hold hearings and demand information. It has the power of the purse, and with it the ability to explore key issues of behavior and policy before approving the budget. It has the power to declare war, and to raise and maintain an army and navy. In the Senate, it has the confirmation process, which allows senators to probe and evaluate policies.

Yet for the most part, Congress prefers deference to executive power. Most of its members, who know that their re-election rests on domestic issues, don’t bother to gain the expertise or develop the political will to become potent and valuable foreign policy contributors, as the Constitution intended. Institutionally, Congress likes leaving decisions to the President and then blaming him if they turn out to be wrong — or it tries to have it both ways, as with Benghazi, cutting funds for State Department security and then criticizing the department for not having enough security.

The executive branch is hardly blameless. The White House, whether under Republican or Democratic control, typically sees Congress as a nuisance and an obstacle to be overcome, not a partner.

Yet that’s a reason for Congress to try harder, not to fold. Our system is based on the premise that better policy emerges if the President and Congress work together. It depends on Congress to hold executive policies up to the light and to weigh in with its own concerns.

To do this, members need to be fully informed both about the complexities of foreign issues and about what the administration is doing. They need to make robust oversight commonplace, asking executive-branch policymakers to spell out and justify policies and their implementation. They need to use the power of the purse to grant or deny funds if their views are not taken into account. They need to develop the expertise — both among themselves and on staff — that would allow them to be both critic and partner in the development of foreign policy.

And above all, those members who do understand the ins and outs of foreign matters need to press Congress to set aside its reluctance to affect foreign policy. That is where the real failings lie — not with individual members, but with how Congress acts as an institution in the formulation of American foreign policy.

Developing American foreign policy is complicated, confusing, and sometimes frustrating. But our country is at its strongest when it is unified and speaks with the voice not just of the President, but of the American people’s representatives in Congress. It’s time for Congress to shoulder its responsibilities on foreign policy.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

One Response to Lee Hamilton: Congress falls short on national security

  1. Mack Hargrave Reply

    March 21, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Congress does fall short on national security. But one hardly knows what to wish for. There are more and more times when Congress does get involved and the outcome is destructive, too expensive, or both.

    This is what Mr. Hamilton says that bothers me. “Institutionally, Congress likes leaving decisions to the President and then blaming him if they turn out to be wrong — or it tries to have it both ways, as with Benghazi, cutting funds for State Department security and then criticizing the department for not having enough security.”

    Really, Mr. Hamilton? Are you seriously proposing that the failures of Benghazi are the fault of funding? All the White House and State Department failed strategies at the time, and the obfuscation of the verified truth about the attack can be written off to funding? We are bleeding money in every part of our government. Are we to believe that in Benghazi, there was no obvious priority for enhanced security? And why, with our spending skyrocketing, can anybody still make a case for a shortage of funding in the State Department? Nonsense.

    There are those of us out here who think that the Benghazi incident is important because of more than just the failure of security. In fact, the failure to provide security or act decisively during the attacks is troubling on deeper levels. Levels where we find ourselves wondering what sort of leadership we have at the very top of our government. Is pandering to world-wide Islamic sentiment to blame for the dismissive way that this was all blamed on a video? Does the constant campaigning by the President take primacy over his concern for anybody, anything, or any threat?

    Even if you do not give any weight to those concerns, surely you have to wonder why not one Congressman from the President’s Party, will join in demanding a full and complete disclosure of the facts about the events that left 4 of our people dead, including an Ambassador. It has been over 5 months. Where are the survivors who can help fill in the blanks? Who has lost their job over this mess? Why did the President have only one conversation early during the attack, and then go MIA?

    Some actions or in-actions rise to a level to where we have to get at this – just who do we have in power? Exposing the character of our leaders is the reason to pursue Benghazi. Be that good or bad. Congress is right to doggedly persevere on this matter.

    Or would you go with the quote from Hillary Clinton on this matter? Wave you hands in frustration and say, “..at this point, who really cares?”

    I do, Secretary Clinton. I do, and so should you. So should we all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>