Congress must step up to restore accountability to national security policy


Amidst multiple crises, American lawmakers have valuable opportunities for crucial reforms now that Donald Trump no longer occupies the White House. He and his enablers undercut key domestic and international institutions, and reconciliation and renewal will first require a sober damage assessment. Domestic reforms essential to protect our democracy will be advanced in a narrowly divided Congress, where centrists will have the power to shape bipartisan consensus, and the executive branch is led by former senators who have fought to defend congressional prerogatives.

In the realm of foreign policy and national security, there are clear lessons to be learned from a previous crisis — the post-Watergate reforms after the 1974 Nixon resignation — when lawmakers systematically advanced a restoration of constitutional balance. Reformers took their cue from our nation’s Founders, whose factions were united by skepticism of imperial executives such as King George. The Constitution methodically placed powers to oversee military, foreign and trade policy in the legislative branch. Congress was granted the exclusive power to declare war and fund its prosecution.

Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, however, an “imperial” presidency has grown. Watergate criminality and the Vietnam disaster produced throughout the 1970s a series of valuable reforms, both domestic and foreign. These included curbs on presidential misuse of appropriated funds, limits on White House declarations of fake “emergencies,” checks on transactional alliances with dictators who ignored basic human rights, and limits on promiscuous arms sales and nuclear exports.

Yet in the post-Cold War era, Congress has ducked accountability on matters of war and peace, time and again. Why would politicians in our “first branch” forfeit crucial powers? And what reforms might now restore the Founders’ balanced design?

A new study released by the University of Virginia’s Center for Effective Lawmaking draws on extensive interviews with key lawmakers and diplomats from both sides of the aisle. In a moment ripe for reform, its conclusions may help chart a more sustainable path forward. 

The post-Watergate reforms did not produce “538 secretaries of state,” as their critics caricature the effort. Rather, they established a set of procedural gauntlets to ensure that a runaway executive would not diminish foreign relations to the very sort of transactional abuses we have seen recently. Congress after Watergate focused on limiting arms sales and nuclear exports, curbing aid to countries that committed human rights violations, conditioning foreign aid, and limiting funding for overseas military commitments absent a specific congressional authorization. The latter included a clumsy war powers reform that was intended — but failed — to curb the “forever wars” such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Leaders of Congress more recently have ignored its constitutional responsibilities, ducking tough votes and accountability on major national security issues. As former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) observed, “Congress has forfeited its powers. We have given up these powers because of our dysfunction.” This dysfunction harms national security, weakens alliances and undermines the sustainability of U.S. commitments.

Congress must step up and accept the responsibilities placed upon it by the Constitution. In national security policy, action items should begin with these five:

  • Require passage of annual authorization and appropriations measures on time as freestanding bills — something done in just four of the past 40 years. Failure should result in forfeiture of members’ pay for each day of delinquency.
  • Reform war powers by establishing a clear consultative process on decisions to deploy the military and reasserting legislative responsibility over this process via policy riders in annual defense spending bills which are, essentially, veto-proof.
  • Limit presidential waivers and tighten requirements to halt presidential abuses of “emergency” authority on arms sales, border security and trade. 
  • Sunset the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and other outdated policies enabling protracted military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, still prosecuted absent any declaration of war.
  • Reassert subpoena powers to produce timely testimony, documentation and policy oversight, while requiring Senate confirmation and accountability for the National Security Council leadership.

By engaging legislators more effectively in building the case for foreign commitments, Congress can secure the public support essential for sustainable alliances at home and abroad. In doing so, legislators will make the American people safer.  

Gerald Warburg is a national security policy expert and professor at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He previously served as senior staffer to members of the House and Senate leadership.

Tags AUMF Donald Trump Jeff Flake National security Post-Watergate reforms presidential powers

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