- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

As Congress moves toward final passage of legislation on reforming the intelligence community in response to the concerns of the September 11 commission, it is important to remember the commission did not recommend reform only for the executive branch.

Congressional reforms also were suggested: “Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important.” While the commission focused on making the intelligence committees work better, the broader issue of how to improve coordination among all congressional committees responsible for national security related issues is just as important.

Congress needs its own National Security Council (NSC) to help coordinate the work of its leadership and committees. According to the White House Web site on the executive branch NSC, “The National Security Act of July 26, 1947, created the National Security Council under the chairmanship of the president, with the secretaries of state and defense as its key members, to coordinate foreign policy and defense policy, and to reconcile diplomatic and military commitments and requirements.” The NSC’s exact role differs from one to another, but its basic coordinating function stays intact.

For the president to get the best advice, there must be cooperation and coordination among the leading persons in his administration responsible for national security issues. The NSC organizes an interagency process at various levels that endeavors to arrive at a consensus on a range of issues affecting foreign policy and defense.

Congress has a different role from that of the president on such matters, but it is, nonetheless, very important in two distinct ways. First, Congress has the power of the purse, which means all funding for international programs and involvement must be approved by Congress. The second role is oversight of programs and international initiatives, including a careful, public examination of our progress in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

How this works can become a bit confusing when various committees claim, rightly, jurisdiction over an issue. For example, intelligence reform falls under the bailiwick of a number of congressional committees: from the intelligence committees, to armed services, to appropriations to a few others. Each has a legitimate claim over how reform proceeds, and the process is further compounded by the attention and involvement of House and Senate leadership.

The trick is how to bring together and coordinate this process to take into account proposals of the administration, as well as various congressional actors. A better way is needed for coordinating how existing committees move legislation forward. That is where a congressional NSC comes in.

It could not be an exact duplicate of the White House NSC. Congress operates differently. It is partisan, and each party wants to preserve its right to object, criticize and seek its own solutions to various problems. But a certain amount of formal coordination could help complex problems like reform of the intelligence community.

The House and Senate would have their own versions of an NSC. The leadership, Democratic and Republican, would appoint their own advisers to oversee the process. The leaders themselves would be the principles who would ensure coordination. Chairmen and ranking members of the key national security related committees, including appropriations, would be the permanent members.

The committees would lose none of their jurisdiction or their rights to conduct committee business in the usual manner. But they would have to participate in formally informing and discussing with their colleagues what they are doing about an issue subject to overlapping jurisdiction. That in itself would lead to better coordination and less duplication. Face-to-face meetings tend to cause people to work better with each other.

A super House and Senate NSC comprised of members from the NSCs of both chambers could also be convened when there is a pressing need to enhance cooperation among chambers. It would not supersede but augment the existing conference committee structure, when necessary.

This kind of change would not threaten current committee jurisdiction. It would create a forum for greater cooperation, coordination and less duplication on issues that affect the Congress and nation as a whole. It would also facilitate consultation with the administration, as the White House could, on some of the bigger issues, work with the Hill’s NSC, as well as existing committees.

There would be no “breaking of china” with this kind of structure. It would build a “china closet” that would give each committee its proper place, as well as leadership, while keeping things together in one overall structure.

WILLIAM DANVERS

Mr. Danvers worked in the House and Senate for 12 years on international issues, and worked at the State Department and National Security Council in the Clinton administrations.

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