In recent years, political agendas have begun to trump the best interests of the nation. The United States Congress is in a constant state of gridlock and seems unable to put party politics aside to invest in a strategic vision to protect and advance U.S. interests.
In order to strengthen U.S. national security, Congress must be a fully functioning and cohesive entity. In the current state of U.S. politics, however, Congress is abdicating its responsibility to play this vital role. Reforming Congress should be a priority in the coming years, spearheaded by an intensive review conducted by its members. Without internal reform, Congressional paralysis will continue to directly threaten U.S. national security.
The divisions between Democrats and Republicans are felt throughout Congress. In a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Ranking Member John McCain criticized the newly released Department of Defense (DoD) Strategic Guidance Review, contending “unfortunately, this defense budget continues the Administration’s habit of putting short-term political considerations over our long-term national security interests.” Referring to the $487 billion of mandatory defense cuts over the next ten years, Senator McCain further insisted the review decisions were “budget driven” and not achieved through strategic observation and analysis.
In fact, however, it is the Obama administration that is appropriately positioning the United States to consider the strategic long-term interests of the country. The U.S. economy is the central pillar of all Government activities. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and other senior Pentagon officials have repeatedly stated that the proposed defense cuts are manageable. Reforming and removing much of the bloat from the Pentagon to invest funds for critical long-term programs is a smart investment. The United States is at a “strategic inflection point” after nearly a decade of war in Iraq and a gradual drawdown from Afghanistan. This is precisely the time to bring all of the stakeholders in the DoD together to strategize about the future, survey the global landscape, identify the challenges and opportunities, and then implement policies to reflect that calculus. This is exactly what the Strategic Guidance Review did so effectively, despite what Senator McCain might argue. It is this strategic structure that should be applied to reviews of Congress.
Congressional paralysis could not come at a worse time. Sequestration will be triggered at the end of this year if Congress cannot avoid looming across-the board-defense cuts. The “meat-axe”, a term invoked by Secretary Panetta to illustrate the severity of sequestration, would hollow out the force, slowly degrade the military, and weaken U.S. national security. Even if sequestration is avoided due to last minute compromise, the can is simply being kicked down the road. This same situation will reoccur unless Congress takes action now to focus on the long-term. If Congress is to play a constructive role in protecting national security, it must reform its practices, and should look to the defense sector as an instructive example.
DoD strategies look over the horizon to focus on future military needs and possible conflicts. Congress needs to adopt this same strategic thinking and apply it to its own posture. Instead of a review conducted by an outside agency, members of Congress should produce a self-assessment of both houses. The month-long annual “review board” should be comprised of fifteen members, five from the Senate and ten from the House who serve on a rotating basis. Members should first look at successes and failures in meetings, sessions, and committees. They should recommend new ways to increase cooperation between members, promote better time management, and condense large reports. Secondly, members must strategize about the roles Congress will play in the future: how it should serve the community and interact with other Government branches. At this phase, Congress can assess new developments, such as domestic crises or international conflicts, and respond accordingly.
Finally, members should formulate a plan to address the new strategy. This last step would require intense cooperation by Democrats and Republicans alike. In a more intimate setting, it will be easier to debate each element of the review, reach compromises through close collaboration, and ultimately, produce a cohesive long-term strategy. With clear objectives and a plan to achieve them, Congress can operate more effectively and efficiently.
In a dynamic and rapidly changing era, the United States must map out its own interests amidst the global landscape. The U.S. national security sector, especially, cannot afford to be distracted and derailed by Congressional party politics. If Congress continually fails to collaborate and strategize, the military and intelligence communities will weaken, and eventually leave the U.S., its people, and its interests abroad vulnerable. It is time to put political agendas aside for the greater good of the nation.
In partnership with the Lint Center for National Security Studies, International Policy Digest will be publishing a series of essays from the winners of a scholarship competition.