House Republicans plan to move a proposal that would restrain White House control over foreign policy planning, amid mounting complaints that the roles of the Pentagon and other national security agencies are being curtailed by West Wing micromanaging.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry will offer an amendment as soon as this week to the annual defense policy bill that would slash the National Security Council staff to “well below” its estimated current level of 400, give Congress more oversight over the council and subject the president’s national security adviser to the Senate confirmation process, according to committee aides.
The changes are a response to a litany of recent complaints about how closely the NSC controls decision making regarding foreign policy and military strategy that traditionally was coordinated by national security agencies. Former Obama administration Defense Secretaries Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta have been particularly outspoken about their frustrations since leaving the Pentagon about the amount of control exercised by NSC staff.
Gates said it wasn’t the big picture policy discussions that bothered him, but how closely the White House tried to control the process of implementing that strategy.
“It was White House micromanagement of military affairs,” he said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in November 2014 in Simi Valley, Calif.. “It was that micromanagement that drove me crazy.”
Thornberry has echoed those critiques in the past and hinted earlier this year that “it may be time to look at” the NSC charter.
Critics inside and out of the administration argue the NSC’s size and insular nature has led it to fail in its core mission of helping President Obama make swift decisions about how to approach conflicts and diplomatic crises in places like Syria, Ukraine and Egypt.
The council was created during the Truman administration to better coordinate diplomacy and defense planning for the president. But since the start of the century, it has ballooned in size, almost quadrupling since the end of the Clinton administration.
The White House has pushed back against scathing reviews of the NSC, pointing out that the growth didn’t occur under Obama’s tenure alone. Current National Security Advisor Susan Rice has made a point of paring back its size, NSC spokesman Ned Price said, cutting staff by 10 percent since December 2014.
A spokesman for committee Democrats did not say on Friday whether the minority would oppose the proposal.
Thornberry’s staff said he also wants to use the $610 billion defense authorization bill to attempt to depoliticize the selection of the president’s top military advisor by extending the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman’s term of service from two years to four years, commencing in the middle of the president’s own term. The move is intended to provide continuity and preserve the independence of the job through presidential transitions.
The bill also would make a number of structural changes to the military’s organization to cut costs and streamline the often competing functions of the different service branches – a move lawmakers on both sides of the aisle believe is needed.
The proposal reduces the top rank at combatant commands from a four-star to a three-star officer, a move that would reduce the number of staffers in these commands and cuts costs. It also would elevate the profile of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command to reflect the growing importance of planning for cyberwarfare.
While there has long been bipartisan agreement that structural reforms in the military are overdue, committee Democrats have yet to comment on Thornberry’s draft legislation.
But some Democrats are voicing concerns over Republican-driven financial priorities in this year’s defense policy bill, which would commit more money than the president requested to military pay raises, overseas train-and-equip programs and expensive military equipment. Democrats are expected to be upset that Republicans are planning to pay for these priorities by using funds from a war funding account, which would leave less money than the White House wants for active operations in foreign conflicts.
This plan could lead to the war fund running out sooner than the administration budgeted, which would likely lead to Congress passing an emergency spending bill to fund these critical military campaigns.
A similar fight almost killed last year’s defense authorization bill, which Obama vetoed once over complaints that Republicans were using war account as a “slush fund” to get around budget caps.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) on Thursday said he supports Thornberry’s approach and would have the Appropriations Committee follow his lead.