In matters of peace and war, no one seems satisfied with Congress. Over the last two decades of conflict, and despite its formal powers to declare wars, appropriate funds, and organize the armed forces, Congress mostly deferred to the executive branch and used more of a rhetorical fight than actively shaping American wars. It does not have to be this way.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle seek a greater voice on national security matters. Since last year, bipartisan groups condemned the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, punished Russia for bad behaviors, and sought limitations on American force drawdowns in Syria and South Korea. Congress voted to invoke the War Powers Resolution for the first time, attempting to curtail intervention in Yemen, and this spring passed legislation to require legislative approval for war with Iran.
These cases of renewed activism by members of Congress are striking, but these actual effects have been limited. Presidential vetoes, disputes over renewing authorizations for the use of military force, and the lack of support for legislative oversight mechanisms have all together frustrated many attempts to shape the course of American conflicts. Congress has to continue to pursue legislative means on this matter, but its relatively neglected informal toolkit stands as the likelier path to influence.
By exercising its informal influence, which means everything other than legislating, members of Congress can test intelligence and define likely costs and benefits before declaring wars. They can inject the discussion of various courses of action into the public debate outside conference rooms in the basement of the Pentagon. They can also press to initiate a worthy conflict by changing narratives or avoid unwise ones.
In doing so, they can significantly expand oversight beyond war initiation to include a prevention, preparation, conduct, and termination. Congress should focus on three activities in its oversight toolkit. These activities are obtaining and sharing information, injecting more ideas into the decision making process, and shoring up the foundations of oversight.
Taking steps to gather accurate information is key. High quality hearings that pursue a line of inquiry over time can yield meaningful insights into national security matters. Ongoing executive branch briefings serve to encourage the understanding of risks, threats, authorities, and complex vocabulary across member offices and between legislative and executive branch officials. Sending delegations to war zones and relevant locations can also create valuable opportunities to assess ground truth.
Convening outside experts, including those critical of existing policy, gives members alternatives to prevailing narratives and assessments, notably when the executive branch is slow to respond. Committees can launch investigations of aspects of a conflict, its costs and impacts, or operational decisions. Members can also send letters to agencies, meet foreign officials, and consume intelligence. While the executive branch has advantages in information and establishing narratives, Congress has real strengths in convening alternative sources of information.
Congress should actively inject ideas into the decision making process. Members are better positioned than most to drive media coverage and express dissent. When made part of a campaign, members can use floor statements, press releases, hearing remarks, and other opportunities to shape policy and the debate where it is crafted. Whether in editorials or cable news interviews, members of Congress can act like Washington reporters for local media and elite signalers in national media.
This is best done when the foundations of national security oversight are strong. The key is to build trust in relationships between members, their staffs, and the agencies that they oversee. The complex national security environment, which cuts across the committee jurisdictions in Congress, demands a continuous and collegial practice of oversight duties.
Much focus on Capitol Hill revolves around ending the “forever wars” in order to devote attention and resources to other issues like great power competition and needs at home. Yet history suggests the United States will remain in the military intervention business in some form for a while. With that reality comes the need to differentiate between contingencies, test prevailing assumptions, oversee ongoing operations, and constantly improve the ability of American forces to attain the national objectives. Congress has a vital role to play in this. By better deploying its informal toolkit, it will better wage the policy battles that overlay the fights.
Congress can question existing military and political strategies and test assessments about the battle. Members can form ground perspectives, offer alternative approaches, and encourage allied involvement. Perhaps most important, they can lobby for needed change of course, elevate the voices of stakeholders set aside by the executive branch, push for an end to failing wars, or disincentive a dangerous troop withdrawal. Moreover, members of Congress can do all of this without taking a single vote.
Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer and Loren Schulman is an adjunct senior fellow at Center for a New American Security. They have authored a recent report on the power of Congress in decisions of war.