Republicans in Congress are contemplating how to exert a degree of control over a National Security Council (NSC) that they see supplanting the role of Senate-confirmed cabinet members in setting the options for the president in national security decision-making. As a former NSC staffer under this president, I will be interested to see how Congress legislates the size of the NSC when successive administrations have gotten around such controls by detailing employees from other federal agencies instead of having the NSC hire them directly. Indeed, the budget for the Executive Office of the President is artificially low when one considers who shows up for work with a blue or orange badge versus who is on the actual payroll. As to behavior, one learns on your first day that you are a fiduciary of the president and national security advisor, not your home agency—that is the only way it works.
Any presidential scholar will tell you that a given president’s NSC resembles his (or her) management style. One of the best treatments I have seen of this was Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars”—where he outlined the conflict between the new Obama NSC leadership and the Pentagon. Watching that unfold first-hand, I saw the creative ways in which the Pentagon—then facing two active wars—sought to influence presidential military options. At the same time, I saw the White House seek to gather its own information and craft strategy in meetings of the National Security Council, the Principals Committee, and the Deputies Committee. I would argue that Woodward’s thesis is alive and well today, though many of the characters at the NSC and Defense have changed.
The congressional interest in this is in ensuring that Senate-confirmed policymakers are ultimately framing decisions. As former secretaries Gates and Panetta have both argued, that is up for debate in this administration. I would personally argue that Obama lacks confidence in his own foreign policy and his behavior with the NSC, State Department, and Pentagon is a reflection of that.
Perhaps most important, while I understand the reasons why Republicans in Congress may take issue with the current use of the NSC, that is really a non-issue in these last few months of the administration. Instead, one has to wonder to what extent this is being driven by them seeing a possible Clinton or Trump in that office and wanting a tighter leash via Senate-confirmed appointees who are subject to congressional oversight. While there may be some logic in that, the notion of subjecting the National Security Advisor to Senate confirmation is an absolute non-starter in my book. Whether confident or not, one of the most singular roles a president plays is as the Commander in Chief and—aside from structural bridges to congressional authority such as the War Powers Act—a president much be able to make decisions quickly, in the national interest, and without political interference.
Eric Lebson is the Managing Director and Practice Leader for Business Intelligence at LEVICK and a contributing author to Tomorrow.