Senators aren’t too keen on a House Republican proposal to give them a say in who the president appoints as the head of the National Security Council, which the GOP and several former Defense secretaries complain has ballooned out of control.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) is expected to propose a measure to winnow the size of the White House’s security apparatus and subject its chief to Senate confirmation when the annual defense authorization bill hits the floor later this month.
Senate Republicans and Democrats are concerned about the size of the NSC staff and what they argue is the outsize clout wielded by the powerful team inside the White House. But neither they nor Senate Democrats want to change the way the national security adviser is picked.
“I’ve watched as the State Department and secretary of state is marginalized because he’s out the building,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
Corker favors shrinking the NSC and believes the secretary of state should have “much greater clout” than has been the case.
“But the confirmation issue,” Corker said, “I have to think about, because in some ways you’re elevating the position … then you’re creating a competing position to the secretary of state, so it has the opposite effect.”
“I don’t know about that [confirmation] part of it,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee. “But I support shrinking the number [of members of the NSC] because it’s grown exponentially, and it’s basically the de facto Department of Defense.”
The NSC’s size has been climbing. Under President George H.W. Bush, the NSC had 50 members; under Bill Clinton, it grew to about 100; and under George W. Bush, to about 200. The NSC’s present size is estimated at about 400, though the administration argues that current national security adviser Susan Rice has reduced the staff by about 10 percent.
The changes, if they take place, will not apply to Rice, whose term ends when Obama leaves office in January 2017.
Former Defense secretaries have pointed to that trend and accused the NSC of “micromanaging” defense policy. But while the increase in the council has spanned both Republican and Democratic administrations, Democrats are less worried than Republicans.
“I’m not sure what the critique is or whether it’s partisan, this vague assertion that the White House micromanages too much,” said Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), who sits on both the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
The NSC was established during the Truman administration under a congressional charter to coordinate foreign and military policy decisions that crossed over various departments and required decisions by the president. The first national security adviser came along a few years later, under President Eisenhower. Ever since, the job has been filled like other senior adviser positions in the president’s executive office – without Senate confirmation.
“In different administrations at different times, the national security adviser has either been central and influential — Henry Kissinger, for example — or a lesser player,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “You can’t, from the Senate, micromanage how the next administration will choose to allocate its resources in terms of people, and staffing, and the prioritization.”
It is unclear whether the changes will pass the House but senators are already considering their options. And some Republicans’ skepticism may have to do with protecting their own president if a Republican wins the White House in November.
“Part of me wants to do it, the other part of me is it was originally set up by President Eisenhower so it would not be a formal cabinet position,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who supports shrinking the NSC, but demurred on the question of Senate confirmation.
Coons and several other Democrats raised sharp concerns about how practical it is to debut another confirmation process when so many other executive branch nominations are stalled.
“We’ve politicized everything so bad I would never want to hold up the security of our nation or someone that’s critically needed for that post,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Fellow committee member Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) raised the example of Adam Szubin, whose nomination to be Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence has been pending for over a year.
“If I were going to design [the NSC] from scratch, I probably would make it look different. But we have to deal with what we’ve got and what we’ve got is a system that’s not functioning when it comes to appointees of this president — especially when it comes to critical national security positions,” Shaheen said.
“Adding somebody else to that, I think, would create a real problem.”