A strong U.S. military rests upon broad, bipartisan support among the American people translated through their representatives in Congress. Yet, amid the onset of great power competition and a generational conflict against jihadis, the Pentagon’s atrophied outreach to Congress has undermined support for the U.S. military.
Although the Pentagon’s “Year Without a Briefing” has rightly garnered a great deal of attention, the American public isn’t the only audience getting the cold shoulder from the Department of Defense. The Pentagon has failed to treat Congress as a partner in executing America’s defense strategy. In explanations both of budget choices and policy decisions, senior defense leaders have repeatedly neglected to invest in relationship building with Capitol Hill or to provide sufficient information to lawmakers and senior staff.
This administration’s penchant for secrecy at the Pentagon further strains an already dysfunctional relationship based on mutual distrust. If Congress believes it hasn’t received sufficient answers to its oversight questions, it responds with public excoriations, punishments and regulatory actions that levy inefficiency on the daily operations of the Pentagon.
The building, fearing such outcomes, refuses to share adequate information with Congress, hoping that such information can be kept secret, or that congressional complaints will blow over in time. If nothing else, the silence emanating from the building engenders mistrust and cynicism about the choices the military makes.
Clearly, Congress understands that some of these strategic messaging and outreach snafus stem from the White House. In particular, anemic information flow about the president’s decision to launder border wall funding through the military or the Office of Management and Budget’s abuse of the overseas contingency operations account cannot be laid at the Pentagon’s feet.
But Capitol Hill has proven much less forgiving of the Pentagon’s failures of communication and lack of outreach.
The department struggled even to provide a basic account of how the 2020 military budget request matched the new defense strategy. This year’s congressional defense legislation is filled with pages and pages expressing severe bipartisan displeasure over the Pentagon’s lack of documentation and insufficient justifications for important acquisition decisions. In early March, Congress learned of the plan to decommission the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman from the press, and the rationale behind the decision remained opaque for weeks.
After springing the purchase of F-15X fighters on Congress with no notice, the Defense Department failed to make a comprehensive case for the acquisition decision until a May 2 hearing. Secretary of the Army Mark Esper — nominated for defense secretary — was chided by top House defense appropriator Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., for inadequate outreach to Congress on Army acquisition plans.
The new Pentagon policy on how the military shares information with Congress about ongoing operations may or may not be appropriate, but lawmakers were clearly surprised by the lack of consultation, and responded, as one might expect, by heatedly defending their institution’s prerogatives. The department dallied for months before sending Capitol Hill a poorly constructed list of military construction projects set to see their funding raided for the border wall. Simple requests about the vulnerability of bases to severe weather likewise took months to meet.
Congress similarly received the Pentagon’s case for a Space Force with befuddlement, months after a congressionally required independent review was classified by the department. As one defense official lamented: “Given the [department’s’] poor job of presenting how we would move people and what criteria would be used, the congressional pushback is expected.”
Just last week, the Pentagon’s research chief ignored congressional direction to leave the Strategic Capabilities Office untouched, instead firing its director with no explanation as to why.
The Pentagon remains silent on Turkey’s acceptance of the S-400 air defense system, even as Congress leads with bipartisan support for cutting Ankara out of the F-35 program.
Administration outreach to Congress on the nature of an evolving Iranian threat and the re-tasking of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group was a mashup of statements from the White House, the Pentagon and the Navy. The Pentagon has yet to even fully and publicly explain how it views Iran as a threat within the context of the new National Defense Strategy.
The Pentagon’s lack of outreach to Congress isn’t new, but it’s worsened over the past few years, as restrictive policy guidance and signals sent by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis remained in place under acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. This bodes ill for a military ostensibly embarking upon a new strategic direction. If confirmed, Secretary of Defense Esper should draw on his own experience on the Hill and direct the department to reverse course when it comes to working with Congress. That will require a commitment of time, particularly from senior civilian defense officials at the deputy assistant secretary level and above. It will also require clear authorization from senior leadership that uniformed and civilian personnel alike can share relevant information with partners in Congress.
By treating lawmakers and staff as teammates in executing the National Defense Strategy — rather than as obstacles — the Pentagon can ensure that its priorities and plans receive broad bipartisan support.
Rick Berger is a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. He previously served as a staff member on the Senate Budget Committee.