CFR’s Take on Congress and National Security

November 17, 2010 By John Glenn

While dozens of reports in recent years have focused on reforming our national security apparatus, the Council on Foreign Relations released a new report with a fresh angle.  This report, authored by Kay King, looks at the role of Congress in national security and calls for a major changes.  She sums up Congress’s track record on international affairs as “uneven,” recommending an overhaul of committee structures created during the Cold War and calling for a “comprehensive, integrated approach to national security.”   She authored an opinion editorial on the subject in today’s New York Times.

The Congressional committees that handle defense, foreign policy, and intelligence operate independently of each other and rarely work together to address common challenges in today’s global world, and issues that cut across the international and domestic arenas (such as immigration, energy, and trade) are primarily addressed by committees that focus on domestic matters (judiciary, energy, and ways and means/finance, for the above examples). 

Years of inadequate funding have also weakened U.S. development capacity, hindered the State Department and USAID’s capacities to undertake large-scale development assistance programs.  This has created incentives for “expensive short-cuts,” such as no-bid contracts, and encouraged administrations to by-pass existing structures and create new programs for specific regions or problems.  King notes the dramatic differences between the Defense Department budget that at times receives more than it wants from Congress, while the State Department and USAID must “beg for attention.” 

Recommendations include:

  • The creation of a new joint-national security committee of authorizers to hold hearings on overlapping issues or holding joint hearings on an ad-hoc basis.
  • Support for the work of House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations in passing an overhaul of the Foreign Assistance Act.
  • A consolidated national security budget that ties defense and international affairs.
  • A new “QD3R” that examines the three “D”s — defense, diplomacy, and development — in relation to each other, every four years.
  • Incentives for Foreign Service Officers to undertake a rotation on Capitol Hill to foster better understanding of how Congress works.


Will timing of the report find conditions ripe for change?  With a large number of new lawmakers coming to town in January, growing bipartisan support for a national security budget, and efforts to review consolidation, there is an opportunity for Congress to do its part in adapting to the new national security world in which we live.