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- As Delivered -

WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today made the following remarks at a full Committee hearing on the role of the National Security Council (NSC):

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  Thank you for calling this hearing. 

“Ambassador Miller, Ambassador Bloomfield, Mr. Chollet: welcome to the Foreign Affairs Committee.  We’re grateful for your time and your expertise.

“It’s been nearly 70 years since the National Security Act created the National Security Council.  Over that time, the Council has proved to be a flexible and dynamic body.  Every President has shaped the NSC staff in a way that has worked best for his purposes.

“Congress intended for the NSC staff to serve as the President’s advisory and interagency coordinating body, as the National Security Act put it, to ‘advise, coordinate, assess, and appraise,’ policymakers relating to national security.                 

“Obviously, over that time, national security politics and concerns has changed as the world has changed.  And the NSC has had to keep pace.         

“As we think about how the NSC might look under future Administrations, we should keep in mind lessons learned in the NSC’s first 70 years.

“First, the selection of National Security Advisor is one of the most critical appointments the President will make.  This person sets the tone for the rest of the NSC and the national-security agencies.  The President should have full faith in the National Security Advisor as a trusted confidant, a role that Congress has supported.

“Secondly, the President’s policy staff should be national-security experts with experience managing interagency processes.  Even though many of them are detailed from other parts of the government, their loyalties should be to our national security and not to any one agency or service.

“And thirdly, while the NSC staff should certainly be in the business of advising the President on policy and ensuring the agencies are carrying out that policy, the NSC staff itself should not be carrying out policy.  That responsibility rests with the Cabinet agencies with Congress’s oversight.

“This is central to our discussion today: how do we ensure that the execution of foreign policy stays where it belongs?

“One common explanation is that NSC mission creep results from the NSC staff growing too large, and the easy solution is to limit the size of the staff.

“I’m sympathetic to that feeling, because we don’t want it to be too expansive, too large and we don’t want it to be usurping things that the State Department or the agencies should do. 

“But it’s not just that.  That in itself, in my opinion, is too simplistic.  It fails to take into account why the staff has grown and ignores the bureaucratic demands facing the NSC.

“The real questions we should be asking are about the appropriate role of the NSC and how it’s managed—issues that are important regardless of the size of the staff.  I do want to say, that I am concerned about the size of the staff, but I think these other things are, are at least equal of concern as well.

“In a certain way, the NSC was set up as a clearing house.  Seventy years ago, the Cabinet agencies had relatively clear-cut missions, with a minimal amount of overlap.  When matters emerged that required cross-agency collaboration or tradeoffs, the question went up the food chain to the NSC, and the NSC coordinated among agencies.

“Today, we face so many more issues that are cross-cutting and overlapping, and that often involve a whole host of Cabinet agencies.  Just consider the Zika virus.  The State Department, HHS, and the Agriculture Department all have roles to play in addressing that problem. 

“But our civilian agencies are still essentially a stove-piped bureaucracy.  So when questions emerge about one of the many complex national-security issues we face, those questions still get passed up to the NSC, often leaving policymaking decisions in the White House’s hands.  Over time, this pattern has forced the staff to grow as well.

“Past attempts to create so-called ‘czars’ to oversee overlapping issues have proved to be a Band-Aid at best, and at worst, totally ineffective.  So how do we empower our agencies to deal with a modern set of challenges without having first, their, without having their first phone call be to the White House?  How do we modernize our agencies and rethink decades-old bureaucratic structures ill-suited to the new challenges we face?

“We know this sort of reform is possible.  We saw it succeed decades ago when the Goldwater Nichols Act forced our military services to work together in Joint Commands.  That law promoted collaboration and a more unified approach to military concerns.

“Following the same approach, we need to make it easier for the talented men and women in our Cabinet agencies to collaborate and arrive at policy consensus.  That way, NSC staff could get back to their original mission: advising the President on policy, seeing that policy carried out, and facilitating coordination among agencies only in those instances when it’s absolutely necessary.

“Yet we simply cannot expect our agencies to shake off decades-old procedures and habits if Congress isn’t providing them with the tools and resources they need to become effective, modern organizations. 

“It’s been 15 years since Congress sent a State Department authorization to the President.  I want to repeat that: fifteen years since Congress sent a State Department authorization to the President.  I don’t think anyone on this Committee, on both sides of the aisle, is happy about that. 

“This Committee recently marked up such legislation.  It’s sitting on the launch pad waiting for House leadership to say, ‘Go.’

“I think the problem that we’re discussing today is one more reason that the House needs to finish its work on the bill, and I would encourage all the other national-security committees to look at what needs to be done to bring their agencies into the 21st century.

“To our witnesses, I’m curious to hear your views on the structure of the NSC and how we can make our agencies more effective and collaborative when it comes to policymaking.

“Again, we’re grateful for your time.  Thank you Mr. Chairman.  I yield back.”