They have essentially been out of power on Capitol Hill for 12 years. When they were last in power, Bill Clinton was president, and the key national security issues on the horizon were Haiti, Bosnia and how to manage the relationship with Russia and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union. What a difference a decade makes.
Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Darfur and the over-arching issue of the GWOT -- the global war on terrorism -- are now part of the panoply of problems confronting the United States. As a result of the elections, the Democrats are now partners in trying to resolve crises, defend America's interests, and renew its leadership as, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright rightly said, the "indispensable nation". While Congress cannot lead in the way the president can, it has an essential role in shaping U.S. national security policy. Among other things, it controls the purse strings and can exercise oversight of Administration national security policy.
It is not easy for the U.S. Congress to involve itself in national security affairs in a unified way. Every member of congress and every Senator is elected to represent a specific constituency, whether it is a congressional district or state. Clearly, they want to work for the common good, but they are not tied to a national constituency in the same way the President is. And that is reflected in the way Congress operates.
The work of Congress is largely done through its committees and leadership. The committees exercise oversight and fund the U.S. government, producing legislation that the full House of Representatives and Senate must consider, and which is eventually sent to the president. Each committee has its own jurisdiction, and although there can be some overlap, each committee in considering an issue will try to draft legislation that reflects its jurisdiction in order to control better the process by which a bill becomes a law.
That means that even when looking into an issue of such importance as Iraq, various committees will look at their part of the problem without necessarily coordinating among themselves. A priori, this does not mean that there is any hostility or even tension among committees only that they like the individuals who lead them are independent actors that are used to going their own way without consulting their colleagues.
This is just the way the institution operates. There is no formal mechanism by which committees come together. Congressional leaders in each party do from time to time endeavor to bring committees and their party caucuses together on a given issue, but this is an ad hoc process. This weakens the voice of Congress on important issues. While it will never be possible for Members and senators to speak with the same unity an administration can, if for example oversight efforts were done with more synchronization it would make them a more formidable foil on national security issues. That would be good for the nation. A balance of power brought on by the tough, coordinated scrutiny of Congress or at least the various parties in Congress would force the White House to be more accountable. Unchallenged, the administration can go its own way without effective checks and balances.
But since the Congress is captive not to an individual like the administration but to individuals, a formal mechanism forcing committees to work more in concert would be very useful. What the Congress needs is a national security council of its own. The NSC coordinates various government departments and agencies, attempting to bring them together on a given policy. While it is not a perfect process, when there is a strong national security advisor and a president who is willing to make good use of the system it can be remarkably effective.
Congress needs to set up its own national security council to bring together its committees and leaders on key international issues. The structure could work similar to the one in the White House. Each party leader could appoint a national security advisor who would oversee the day to day process of the party NSC. The councils would be made up of the chairs or ranking members of a core group of committees that are responsible for national security issues such as the defense committees, the international relations committees, the intelligence committees, the appropriations committees and the homeland security committees. The committee national security advisors would work with the staff directors of the various committees generally linking them together and trying to get them to coordinate their activities on issues where useful and appropriate.
The chairs or ranking members of the committees could be brought together from time to time or when the situation called for it, just as the principals--cabinet officials -- are called together by the president. The party leadership could preside over these meetings just as the president sometimes does. While each party could have their own NSC, there could also be coordinating mechanism to bring the two parties together when it is useful, as well as a broader mechanism to bring the two chambers together as well.
One concern over such an idea would be that it might undermine the authority or power of individual chairs or ranking members. That is not true. No one would gives up authority; they simply would have a formal mechanism by which they can cooperate with their colleagues on other committees. In fact, it could be argued that they would enhance their authority since Congress would speaking with a more unified and, therefore, powerful voice.
First Sept. 11, 2001, then the war in Iraq has underscored the need for Congress to play a more important role in shaping national security policy. The recent elections are proof that the American people want change and want Congress to play a more active player in determining how best to protect and promote US national interests abroad. It is time for Congress to implement its own internal changes that will allow it do so more effectively. Establishing party national security councils is a good way to begin that process.
(William Danvers has worked on international issues for nearly a quarter of a century, on Capitol Hill in the House and Senate, at the State Department, at the White House National Security Council, at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For the past five years, he has served in the private sector as a consultant.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)