Time for Congress to take more leadership in our foreign affairs

Time for Congress to take more leadership in our foreign affairs
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Just as the saying goes, elections have consequences. However, those consequences should not be exclusively viewed through a political lens. Much like the 1994 wave elections, the 2018 midterms created a fresh opportunity for institutional reforms in Congress. One area in dire need of attention is the fulfillment of its legislative national security obligations. 

Although foreign policy remains a relative oasis of bipartisan comity, the ability of the legislative branch to meet institutional obligations, from debating use of military force to ratifying treaties and authorizing State Department programs, has eroded substantially in recent decades. The injection of young talented members with a range of national security experiences in the new freshman class creates a unique foundation to elevate the role of Congress in foreign affairs for many years to come.

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The primary vehicle for reform efforts this year will be in the House, where a bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was established earlier this month as part of the rules package. The first such effort in more than 25 years, the committee was granted a broad mandate to study a wide range of issues, including opportunities for developing the next generation of leaders, increasing the efficiency of Congress, recruiting and retaining staff, and improving the legislative calendar. Although the committee will study process and practice without any jurisdictional boundaries, Congress must consider how these lines of effort can reinvigorate leadership in important national security issues.

The key step is developing and sustaining experienced cadres of junior members. The national security committees are the primary venue to develop these skills, but they offer few opportunities for junior members to do meaningful work. The select committee should consider the value of institutionalizing bipartisan national security policy working groups that would provide talented members with latitude to develop ideas that could directly inform committee decisions and tackle jurisdictional challenges.

Furthermore, committees could be encouraged to devote resources to special project task forces that would give rising members a space to build expertise and generate innovative policy ideas across party lines. Imagine a legislative ecosystem where thoroughly researched bipartisan initiatives from members are consistently developed for defense and intelligence authorization bills. Not only would this system enhance oversight and innovation, it could go a long way toward better engaging the rank and file members frustrated with their lack of policy influence.

Another area the select committee should examine is the relative power balance among House leadership and committees, which has shifted toward leadership over many sessions. As important as leadership is in coordinating policy and mediating issues, policy development at this level has diminished the deliberative process of the committees and takes away opportunities for members to contribute. Shifting the policy process back toward a strong presumption of regular order would strengthen these committees, better incentivize the development of technical expertise among members, and help to depoliticize national security decisions.

Calling for increased staff and salaries is common in reform efforts, and the select committee should consider these proposals. The national security committees are responsible for overseeing some of the largest bureaucracies in the federal government during a period of rising global instability and great power competition. However, funding for staff and the level of technical expertise in Congress have not kept pace since the 1990s. Arguably the most productive legislative committees are the defense authorization and appropriations committees, which have long relied on a strong bipartisan staff culture. Expanding the staff, paying them competitive wages, and extending these hires across the national security committees can dramatically improve policy and oversight.

The select committee will also consider the legislative calendar. Reforms that increase the time members spend in Washington drafting bills, holding hearings, and building relationships will benefit legislative activity in foreign affairs. Few members engage in national security issues for electoral gain, as foreign policy rarely tops the list of important issues for constituents. Thus, it is often the issue left on the cutting room floor of schedulers. Any reforms should account for international travel and maintain opportunities for fact finding missions and diplomatic trips.

The buck always stops with the president on shaping the national security agenda. However, the diminished role of Congress significantly damages American engagement with the world. An active Congress with deep foreign policy expertise strengthens our alliances, develops diplomatic initiatives, conducts effective oversight, supports budget stability, and serves a critical link in communicating American foreign policy interests to the public. Our country can benefit from the unprecedented influx of foreign policy talent in Congress today. Let us not waste the opportunity.

Louis Lauter is the vice president for government affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Colin McElhinny is associate director of government affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.