President Obama meets with members of the NSC in 2014.

President Obama meets with members of the NSC in 2014. White House / Pete Souza

Rein in the National Security Council

Created as a coordinating body, the NSC has become a policymaking powerhouse whose White House status hides it from oversight.

By head count, the National Security Council, or NSC, is a tiny sliver next to the Defense Department, which has more attorneys than the entire White House has staffers. Yet it wields power far beyond its numbers — and, its detractors say, beyond its proper function. The NSC is increasingly directing the implementation of foreign policy, according to members of Congress who worry that counsel from the State, Defense, and Treasury departments are increasingly getting overlooked or watered down.

Established as part of the National Security Act of 1947, the NSC was designed to be an inter-agency clearinghouse where the principles of the major departments could assemble and discuss policy, recommend options to the president, and help put the decided policy into place.

NSC staffers, according to many in Congress, are no longer performing the duties as set in that law 69 years ago. As the world becomes more complex, and issues like public health, migration, humanitarian response, and weapons of mass destruction are increasingly seen as first-order priorities for the United States, the White House body is increasingly bringing more people onboard to make sure that those problems don’t become crises. Regional portfolios have expanded into sub-regions, and the dedicated professionals asked by the president to serve on the national security staff are given job titles that are so long that it’s hard to put them on a business card.

Related: What’s Wrong with Obama’s National Security Council?

Just as important as the growing size of the NSC staff, though, is the power that is given to it. Defense Secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Chuck Hagel have all complained about how the Pentagon is often subverted or relegated to a secondary status when critical national security decisions are made.

In a 2014 interview with NPR, Gates said that NSC staffers at time were “going outside the chain of command” and contacting generals in the field. Panetta, Gates’ replacement as Defense Secretary, held a similar gripe, complaining that White House staffers would over-edit the speeches he was prepared to deliver or shut down interviews that he was willing to give.

Congress is right to be worried about the trend. The U.S. Constitution, after all, provides members of Congress with the power to not only oversee the actions of the entire executive branch, but to initiate investigations and call on top department officials to give testimony on everything from policy and personnel to budget requests. If the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State does something objectionable or is implementing a policy that isn’t getting the desired results, congressional committees can demand them to appear in person to answer questions.

This normal order of business doesn’t apply to the NSC staff, a growing body of people that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has judged to resemble “the President's immediate personal staff ” rather than an independent agency. For Congress, this means that White House staffers don’t have to face the unpleasant experience of a congressional grilling that Senate confirmed department heads are required to.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce summarized the predicament for lawmakers at a Sept. 8 hearing. “In too many cases, [the NSC’s] traditional role of “honest broker” has evolved to a policy-making role,” Royce said. But because that policymaking role is being conducted in the White House, committees like his are unable to compel testimony and engage in oversight on behalf of the American people.

How can we solve this problem? Hiring less, streamlining positions, combining portfolios, creating temporary task forces instead of hiring new staffers on a permanent basis, and releasing more White House memos and presidential directives to the public are all good suggestions. But another good recommendation is for Congress to reclaim its rightful role and move back to the regular way of conducting its business. This means passing authorization bills for important components of the foreign policy bureaucracy like the State Department — something that hasn’t been done in 14 years — and taking up individual authorization and appropriations bills for America’s national security agencies instead of relying on a thousand-page spending bill that is more a creature of dysfunction than of accountability.

If Congress expects the White House to change its institutional culture and reform the way the West Wing operates, then it is only fair that the legislative branch lives up to the same standards. The more seriousness that Congress demonstrates in its own work, the better argument they will have in compelling the White House to be more efficient in the policymaking process and more tolerant of being scrutinized by the U.S. Congress — as the Constitution demands.