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Hamilton: Congress comes up short on its oversight role

Lee H. Hamilton

Every now and then, I’m asked if I miss serving in Congress. My stock answer is that no, I don’t really miss it, but there are definitely times when I’d like to jump right into a policy debate or be in a position to call congressional hearings.

This is one of those times.

In recent weeks, several media outlets have reported that U.S. military commanders are suggesting they need more American troops on the ground in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, Libya. And last month, talking about our efforts to defeat the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told CNBC, “We’re looking for opportunities to do more and there will be boots on the ground and I want to be clear about that.”

This ought to have Congress working overtime to prepare for these requests. It’s rare to find a military commander who doesn’t want more troops: They face serious security challenges, especially in the Middle East. But one can be sympathetic and at the same time skeptical, or at least probing.

So Congress should be pushing very hard to get answers to some very tough questions. Where are we headed with these proposed troop increases? If they don’t work, what’s next? What’s our exit strategy? What are the prospects for negotiations? We keep saying we’re going to support the moderate opposition in Syria: who are they, what do they bring to the table, and how are we recalibrating our approach in the face of Russian airstrikes on behalf of the current regime?

We insist that we’re going to destroy ISIS, but no other country in the international coalition fighting the Islamic State seems willing to put forces on the ground. Are we going to be the only one? And just how does the administration propose to destroy ISIS?

Congress has two key functions in our system of government: legislation and oversight. Most public attention — and certainly most media attention — focuses on policy-making and legislative maneuvering. But Capitol Hill’s role in overseeing the executive branch is just as important.

That’s because in seeking answers, Congress can force the president and his top advisers to articulate and defend their policies, their objectives, the steps they’re taking (or proposing) to implement those objectives, and the impact they expect from their policies. In other words, Congress needs to act on behalf of the American people to ensure that major policy requests are looked at from every angle and fleshed out as thoroughly as possible so that we go into new situations with a clear-headed understanding of why we’re taking these steps.

Our representatives on Capitol Hill need to press the administration on what resources are needed to obtain its objectives: in this case, how many troops, how much money, what are the risks to American lives and interests?

This demands walking a careful line that Congress hasn’t been especially good at negotiating of late. It has to be both a partner and a critic, supporting the president when it thinks he’s doing something right, criticizing him when it thinks he’s wrong, helping the administration craft policy that is in tune with the nation’s needs, and putting alternatives forward when it sees a better way.

Simply put, government functions better when Congress pursues robust oversight. It sharpens objectives, improves government performance, makes the bureaucracy more responsive, and curtails wasteful spending.

Sadly, this key responsibility has fallen into disrepair. If we want to restore the vigor of the Congress, getting it to look into every nook and cranny of government is vital. The military’s pursuit of growing troop strength and new strategies in the Middle East would be a good place to start.

Lee Hamilton teaches at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.