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There are undoubtedly any of number of reasons why Barack Obama decided to take up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last-minute proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. But certainly one of them was the very real possibility that the American president would not get the congressional authorization for the use of force he was seeking. By no measure was there a consensus among the members of either chamber about what should be done in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, let alone what America’s more general policy should be toward the civil war there.
And Syria is just the tip of the iceberg. For some time now, Washington has had no working consensus about the direction of America’s foreign and defense policies. Analysts have put forth an array of explanations to explain why this is the case, from the increased political polarization of the body politic to the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the stagnant economy to lack of a simple narrative to deal with a post-Cold War world where China is rising, the Middle East is exploding, and new powers are demanding a seat at the table.
Less noticed, however, is Congress’s waning expertise on global affairs. The era of long-term members and committee chairman, such as Richard Russell, Henry Jackson, Richard Lugar, John Tower and Dante Fascell are a thing of the past. In its place is a rotating cast of players who, whatever their intentions, cannot match the years spent in committee hearings, closed-door briefings and one-on-one meetings with senior diplomats and Pentagon officials that a previous generation could call on. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual for key members of the relevant House and Senate committees to be more familiar with issues and leaders of foreign governments than newly minted administration officials. But that’s a bygone era. The past two decades have seen a significant decline in the levels of experience in the key security committees of the House and the Senate. Although retirements and the vicissitudes of politics have always meant seats changing hands, this process has accelerated over the past two decades, making creating and maintaining a consensus all the more difficult.
Since the effective end of the Cold War in 1989, there has been an 87 percent turnover in members of the Senate and an even greater change in the House, with only 6 percent of that body still in place. No less striking is the fact that, since 2001, nearly three quarters (72 percent) of the Senate and House is new.
To put this in perspective, since 1989, U.S. presidents have sent American forces into harm’s way in major military operations six times (Panama, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Only a handful of members have been around to debate and oversee all those decisions.
Nor is the picture any more reassuring when one drills down to look at the relevant committees. In the House, the Committee on Foreign Affairs — or, previously, the Committee on International Relations — has seen more than 90 percent of its membership change since the Cold War’s end and more than 80 percent since 2001. Right now, half of the committee is composed of members who first took their seats in the House this past year.
As for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the turnover has been even higher. Not a single senator sitting on the committee in 1989 remains, and only Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has retained a seat on the committee since 2001. In the past, given the Senate’s role in treaty-making and the appointment of ambassadors, the committee was expected to be a bench of experience that could challenge and improve executive-branch decisions. But with 17 of its 18 members having joined the panel after 2006 — and 11 of those joining since 2011 — it would be difficult to argue that it’s a body deep in experience.
Similar concerns arise when one examines the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. In the case of the latter, 80 percent of the committee’s ranks have changed since 2001 and half its current members have joined since November 2010.
As for the House Armed Services Committee, its turnover since the beginning of the decade has been virtually the same as its sister committee in the Senate, but with a complete change in membership since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And like the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Armed Services Committee has seen a substantial influx of new members, with nearly half the members coming on since Obama first came into office.
Turnover of senior leadership is a no-less acute problem. Under Senate and House rules, chairs and ranking members are typically limited to fixed terms. As a result, the chairperson, having reached the end of his or her tenure and likely the pinnacle of his authority as a member, will often retire from the Senate or House altogether. Combined with the normal turnover from elections, this has left a thin crust of leadership experience on the four committees.
Just how thin is that crust? There is not a single former chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee still residing on the committee and both the chair, Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and the ranking member, Bob Corker (R-TN), are relatively new senators, with the latter taking his senate seat in 2007 and the former in 2006. On the Senate Armed Services Committee, of the 26 members, only Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) have held those senior posts and remain on the committee.
The story is the same in the House, with only Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) remaining on the Foreign Affairs Committee after serving as chair and ranking member. No former chair or ranking member of the Armed Services Committee still sits on the committee.
“Time served” isn’t everything. No doubt sound principles and good judgment are as important, or even more important, than years spent in Congress. Nevertheless, experience in assessing policies, knowing how best to oversee the executive’s implementation of those policies, and understanding how to move legislation counts as well. Think of such measures as the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974 and how it helped transformed America’s human rights policy during the Cold War, in the face of executive branch opposition.
In the end, Putin’s gambit will likely be exposed as a sham, and the president might once again seek congressional authorization for a military strike. If he succeeds — a long shot at best right now — it won’t be because deeply experienced members of the House and the Senate have guided the measure through the legislative process. And this hardly bodes well for future presidents wanting to work with Congress on what may well be a most difficult decade ahead.
Daniel Fata is a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar in security affairs at the American Enterprise Institute; both served as senior congressional staff.
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