Congress Can Do Far More to Oversee America’s Foreign Wars

October 18, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: CongressWarTroopsForeign PolicyAfghanistan

Congress Can Do Far More to Oversee America’s Foreign Wars

The Founders were correct to vest national security decisionmaking in more than one branch of government. Congress can positively influence matters of war and peace.

CONGRESS IS well placed to obtain and share information about a pending or ongoing conflict. Traditional oversight tools, such as hearings and formal written queries, work best when augmented by the suite of formal and informal processes and procedures members and their staffs can use to educate themselves, the public, and the administration. A spectrum of such tools includes:

Hearings. Committee hearings offer members the opportunity to receive formal testimony and briefings, and to question witnesses on the record, including follow-up “questions for the record.” As a rule, the number of hearings on a given issue is not by itself a metric of effective oversight. Instead, high quality, well-attended hearings pursuing a line of inquiry over time tend to produce the most meaningful insights. Hearings can draw the public eye and deepen understanding of military interventions by featuring strong expert witnesses, coordinated questioning, and a sense that the area of study is more than a one-off set of members’ statements aimed at the cameras. And as artificial as congressional theatrics may appear to those in the room, they can produce effects: as experts William Howell and Jon Pevehouse describe it,

“The public posturing, turns of praise and condemnation, rapid-fire questioning, long-winded exhortations, pithy Shakespearean references, graphs, timelines, and pie charts that fill these highly scripted affairs are intended to focus media attention and thereby sway the national conversation surrounding questions of war and peace.”

Briefings. Requesting and participating in regular intelligence, military, and policy briefings from a variety of executive branch officials, in both classified and unclassified formats, allow members and staff to get the “official” story of military operations in a less formal setting than televised hearings. Briefings also serve to encourage level-setting in understanding authorities, risk, threats, and complex vocabulary, both across member offices and between legislative and executive branch counterparts. Bipartisan briefings, or sequential majority/minority briefings, can prove especially effective for generating transparency and responsiveness.

Congressional delegations (CODELs). CODELs to war zones and other relevant locations create invaluable opportunities to assess ground truth. CODELs and staff delegation trips often provide members and staffers with a wider and sometimes more accurate perspective than that of their executive branch counterparts, who can both be more constrained in their travel and receive different treatment when overseas. That said, CODELs can also tend toward dog-and-pony shows that offer visitors a carefully curated version of reality. Key to such trips is seeking deviations from any scripted agenda in order to get candid or unofficial assessments, whether this involves setting aside a prepared briefing for informal questions, requesting last-minute meetings with local experts and stakeholders, or challenging assumptions with validated facts and analysis. Also key is making repeated trips to particular locations over time, rather than attempting to fly in once, take the measure of a situation in a day or two, and return to Washington replete with firmly held convictions.

Expert consultations. Convening outside experts in particular issue areas, including those critical of existing policy, provides members and staffs with alternatives to prevailing narratives, assessments, and facts on the ground. Such sessions are all the more important given trends in hearings toward one-sided expert witnesses and limited participation in question periods. After 9/11, Capitol Hill’s trust in the Department of Defense (DoD) to manage information, operations, and evaluations soared—thereby aligning with the military’s standing as most the most trusted institution in America. But particularly as the U.S. military presence diminished in major theaters and smaller “by-with-and-through” deployments became the norm,  the Pentagon’s more limited presence visibly constrained its information advantage. Likewise, formal assessments such as the Iraq Study Group and the Afghanistan Papers challenged DoD’s credibility in measuring its operational success and understanding local conditions. Think tanks, advocacy groups, grassroots organizations, academics, and other third-party stakeholders’ experience, historical expertise, and on-the-ground connections offer insights unavailable even to the most widely traveled members of Congress and their staffs. Members have recently challenged dod briefings on Saudi and Emirati operations in Yemen with facts acquired through such external consultations; thirty years ago, their colleagues did the same on the security dynamics of Somalia; and three decades before that did so with Vietnam.

Investigations. Congressional committees may launch investigations of specific aspects of a conflict, its costs and impacts, or operational decisions. The most well-known investigations in national security circles have become deeply polarized, but, performed effectively, they serve as crucial mechanisms to level-set congressional and public understanding of complex policy challenges. Scholarship suggests three effective measures to strive for: as former Senator Carl Levin and Elise Bean put it, quality bipartisanship (“whether it addressed issues of importance to the public, made use of appropriate investigative techniques, uncovered useful information, and was able to produce a consensus on the facts”); credibility in the eyes of experts, policymakers, and the public; and the “extent to which it led to changes in policy or practice.”

Reports and notifications required by law. Congress can mandate new executive branch reporting on key aspects of a military effort, and it can also use existing reporting as a source of authoritative information. A wide range of reporting requirements governs matters on the spectrum of military intervention. From arms sales to advisory missions to combat-equipped deployments to drone strikes, committees receive notifications, updates, metrics, and spending reports. Close attention to these can highlight areas meriting further investigation and generate a comprehensive picture of executive branch activities. Such reports are not, however, always distributed across all national security committees, and, due to classification or administration preference, they are not always made public. One staffer noted in an interview with the authors that while notifications serve as information, they are also “relationship enablers”—if the notifications go only to limited audiences, the relationships will be similarly limited.

A frequent criticism of mandatory congressional reporting is that members and staffs simply do not read what the executive branch produces. This is often true, but ignores its other potential functions. Reports allow interest groups and the media to highlight notable concerns, such as in arms sales proceedings. They also often demand policy, legal, and evaluative rationales from the executive branch that should, in theory, cause officials to think harder about their decisions and take ownership of them—as in the Legal and Policy Justification of Use of Force report. And reports can spur interagency awareness and consultation that might not otherwise occur in a fractured national security policy system. In the case of the Global Security Contingency Fund, for instance, Congress required both State-DoD “dual key” authorization and reporting to multiple committees.

Other powerful information-gathering tools include:

Letters to agencies and requests for information. It has been said that one letter from one member of Congress can tie up a federal agency for six weeks. Though sending such a letter may not be a good idea, the axiom underscores the potential power of such a seemingly pedestrian missive. Letters constitute useful opportunities to flag congressional interest and concern, particularly when the concern crosses party lines and ideologies. Responses may reap some of the same benefits as reports but may also garner higher-level attention and be less subject to bureaucratic censoring.

Meetings with foreign officials. Representing themselves rather than the U.S. government, members of Congress often have access to the highest levels of foreign governments and can both obtain information and convey messages.

Regular intelligence. The members and staff of national security committees, including the House and Senate Intelligence, Armed Services, and Foreign Relations Committees, have access to regular intelligence reporting as well as the opportunity to receive additional information about areas of particular interest.

THESE APPROACHES will only partially address a trend toward executive opacity and outright refusal to comply with requests for information. Some experts have opined on the merits of legal strategies to force executive compliance in requests for information; we will leave that consideration aside. A more productive path would aim at transparency: first by collating, publishing, and tracking requests from members of Congress for information on America’s wars (today, these requests are largely publicized by individual members, if at all, and rarely shared among offices); next by tracking executive responsiveness; and finally, and crucially, by publishing executive branch responses when unclassified.

Merely gathering information, of course, is insufficient to influence use-of-force decisions. Congress can go well beyond by actively injecting ideas into the decisionmaking process. Here, the power of members of Congress as elites to drive coverage and shine a spotlight on ideas is unparalleled; as some experts have observed, Congress stands out as the group of individuals most able to generate dissent against an administration’s policy. Others, like Douglas Kriner, note that “congressional opponents of administration policy can raise the political costs of pursuing a policy course that strays too far from congressional preferences.” They are also capable of moving beyond public framing to what Ralph Carter and James Scott term “policy entrepreneurship: proposing solutions, strategizing, and ‘working the system’ to organize others and provide leadership.”

Congress’s tools for shaping public debate and offering policy alternatives include: