In their original report to Congress, Dole and Byrd argued that their constitutional responsibility to provide advice and consent for treaties imposed “upon senators the obligation to become as knowledgeable as possible concerning the salient issues which are being addressed in the context of the negotiating process.”
Although the NSWG has not played as prominent a role as its Cold War predecessor, senators who serve on this group believe it still serves a vitally important function. In 2009, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), administrative co-chairman of the NSWG, led a trip to Geneva, Switzerland on NSWG’s behalf to observe follow-on negotiations to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. After the trip, Senator Kyl submitted this Statement for the Record:
“…the NSWG exists to provide a forum for an expert group of senators to have up-to-date information on ongoing treaty negotiations, and to provide the Administration with consultation from the Senate. This consultative role is important, because the Constitution entrusts the Senate with the responsibility to provide its advice along with, perhaps, its consent to a treaty. This means administrations are supposed to listen to the advice of senators if they expect to earn the Senate’s consent.”
Today, NSWG has the potential to be an indispensible means of preserving the Senate’s institutional knowledge about nuclear and other security issues. Expert legislators such as John Kerry, Jon Kyl, and Richard Lugar have left the Senate and significantly reduced the institutional knowledge on vital nuclear issues. In fact, Sen. Lugar was the final remaining original member of the Arms Control Observer Group to serve in the Senate.
Rather than eliminating NSWG’s core functions, the Senate must consider how this mechanism can be strengthened and reconstituted to serve the Senate without partisan bickering. A solution might be to revive the highly successful and well-regarded observer group in its place.
Revival of the observer group was suggested by the bipartisan 2009 Nuclear Posture Commission, which stated, “a renewal of arms control requires a renewal of institutional capacity” and that Congress “needs a mechanism to support its effective participation” in the arms control process.
One of the commission’s co-chairs, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, argued reforming the Arms Control Observer Group would help to “renew the practice and spirit of executive-legislative dialogue on nuclear strategy that helped pave the way for bipartisanship and continuity in policy in past years.” Unlike the NSWG, which covers a range of issues, recreating the Arms Control Observer Group would provide a forum specifically focused on nuclear security; thus, providing an opportunity to reestablish the institutional knowledge recently lost in the Senate.
Regardless of the immediate future of the NSWG, eliminating it altogether is not the right way to proceed. Over the next few months, the Senate should take up serious consideration of the kind of advisory body that would be most effective to help Senators exercise their constitutionally mandated oversight role in protecting national security.
Roth is a policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a research assistant at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Nolan serves on the international affairs faculty at George Washington University and is chairwoman of the (privately funded) Nuclear Security Working Group.