Tag Archives: Congress

Stepping on Toes? Congress and US Foreign Policy Making

In a move described by observers as an unprecedented breach of protocol, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced today he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the issue of Iran without consulting with the White House. The invitation highlights a sharp division between the Congress and the White House over how best to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In defense of his move, Speaker Boehner said he is “not poking [the President] in the eye,” but seeking to “address a serious threat in the world [that] the President is papering over.”

Foreign policy has traditionally been the domain of the executive branch, led by the White House and the State Department.

What do you think? Was Speaker Boehner right to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting with the White House? How might the obvious divisions between the White House and the Congress on the question affect the US negotiating position with Iran?

The Domestic Politics of National Defense

The troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program suffered another setback yesterday after the Pentagon was forced to ground the entire fleet of fighters after a jet suffered from an unexplained fire while on a runway at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The program is already running well over cost, and has suffered design problems and delays throughout its development period. As an article in Vantiy Fair put it,

The Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive weapons system ever developed. It is plagued by design flaws and cost overruns. It flies only in good weather. The computers that run it lack the software they need for combat. No one can say for certain when the plane will work as advertised. Until recently, the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, was operating with a free hand—paid handsomely for its own mistakes. Looking back, even the general now in charge of the program can’t believe how we got to this point. In sum: all systems go!

Why has Congress, which controls the purse strings, continued to support the most expensive (and apparently, problemed) military procurement program in US history? In part, the fact that, as manufacturer Lockheed Martin maintains, the program sustains 125,000 jobs in 46 states, makes the program popular among members of Congress. While these jobs claims have been dismissed by some as inaccurate, members of Congress are always hesitant to appear either anti-jobs or weak on defense. In this case, the F-35 program has both going for it.

Collecting Economic Data

The US Capitol, Washington, DC

The US Capitol, Washington, DC

It seems that House’s war on (political) science is not yet over. House Resolution 1638, The Census Reform Act of 2013, was introduced yesterday. If passed, the legislation would prohibit the U.S. Census from collecting any information beyond the Constitutionally-mandated decennial population count. Specifically, it would end collection of the U.S. agricultural census, the government census, the mid-decade census, and the American Community Survey. The United States, in other words, would lack basic economic data, such as the unemployment rate and the gross domestic product measures which are calculated using data collected by the Census Bureau.

There are many countries which lack regular reporting of basic economic data. In many African countries, for example, annual GDP reports are calculated using base year estimates and an annual multiplier adjustment calculated from a few key indicators. The problem is that the further we move from the base year, the mess accurate the economic measures become. Indeed, the problem was so pronounced in Nigeria that a 2012 revision added nearly $100 billion to the national economy overnight, increasing the size of the economy by 40%. The revision was not based on any real change in the country’s economic output—it was certainly not a function of a dramatic level of economic growth. Rather, it was simply a recalculation of the figure based on more up-to-date (and arguably more accurate) data. In 2010, Ghana similarly experienced a 60 percent increase in its GDP.

So does all this matter? Should we worry about the accuracy of GDP figures in the United States? Or unemployment figures, which would be similarly affected by the proposal? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

First They Came for the Political Scientists…

Martin Niemoller

Martin Niemoller

An interesting story surfaced in the Huffington Post yesterday. It seems that Congress’ efforts to dictate the research funded by the National Science Foundation is not yet over. As the story notes, the House Science Committee is

making an unprecedented move to require oversight of the scientific research process, pushing a bill that would in effect politicize decisions made by the National Science Foundation… The bill, titled the High Quality Research Act and authored by [House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chair Lamar] Smith, would require the director of the NSF to certify in writing that every grant handed out by the federal agency is for work that is ‘the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and … is not duplicative of other research project being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

Smith followed up by requesting NSF Director Cora Marret justify a number of social science studies about which he had expressed concerns.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, who sits on the committee, fired back with his own letter to Smith.Johnson’s letter argues that,

Rather than entering into [a] dialogue, your letter marks the beginning of an investigative effort, the implications of which are profound. This is the first step on a path that would destroy the merit-based review process at NSF and intrudes political pressure into what is widely viewed as the most effective and creative process for awarding research funds in the world… Interventions in grant awards by political figures with agendas, biases, and no expertise is the antithesis of the peer review process. By making this request, you are sending a chilling message to the entire scientific community that peer review may always be trumped by political review. You also threaten to compromise the anonymity that is crucial to the grant and open exchange of comments and critiques during the review process, and in doing so, further comprise the integrity of the merit review process. How can future participants in the peer review process have confidence that their work will remain confidential with the Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee has shown that probing specific awards absent any allegation of wrong-doing may become the way business is done?

The debate raises several important issues around the role of public funding of research, the dangers of politicization of science, and the proper role of regulation in education and scientific research. But as a political scientist, it also makes me wonder why this debate did not occur two months ago, when Congress passed the Coburn Amendment limiting NSF funding for political science research. Reminds me a bit of the Martin Niemöller poem

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Those wishing to write their respective Representative can find their contact information on the House’s Office of the Clerk Website.

The F-35 Conundrum

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during a test flight over Texas.

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during a test flight over Texas.

The entire fleet of F-35 fighter jets was grounded last week  following the discovery of a cracked engine blade during a routine inspection at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The F-35 is the world’s most advanced fighter jet, and versions of the aircraft are flown by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

When it was proposed, the F-35 was intended to be w joint weapons system that could meet the needs of all three branches. It was built as a stealth fighter with extensive ground strike capabilities. However, it has suffered from extensive cost overruns, quickly becoming the most expensive weapons program in the history of the United States, with a total cost of nearly $400 billion. And despite the cost, repeated revisions and setbacks have led to higher costs and a slower delivery schedule. While the United States plans to purchase more than 2,400 F-35s at $89 million each, to date, only 32 aircraft have been delivered at a cost of $207.6 million each (excluding the cost of research and development). The aircraft that have been delivered have not seen combat operations and have been grounded twice in the past year.

Further, the F-35 was developed in the 1990s as the next-generation stealth fighter designed to replace a wide range of aircraft currently in operation. For the Air Force, the F-35 is a strike fighter to replace the F-16 Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt. For the navy, a short takeoff version of the F-35 will replace the F-18 Hornet attack fighter and the AV-8B Harrier jump fighter. The Marine Corp plans on using its vertical takeoff version of the F-35 to replace its Harrier jets.

This has led to several problems, though. In attempting to meet the often competing demands of the various branches, the F-35’s designer, Lockheed Martin, has had to sacrifice design elements that were desirable to other branches. The Air Force, for example, is dissatisfied with the short range of the jet, necessitated by structural reinforcements to make the aircraft capable of carrier operations, as required by the Navy.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the global environment for which the F-35 was designed has shifted as the program has developed. The use of drone aircraft was virtually unheard of when the program was developed in the 1990s. Today, drone operations are increasingly becoming the first option for U.S. air operations abroad. The F-35 was designed to sneak past and eliminate enemy radar, clearing the way for non-stealth aircraft to attack without opposition. The use of the F-117 Nighthawk in U.S. operations during the first Gulf War illustrates precisely this role.

But today, drones are viewed as a more cost-effective option to achieve this and other goals. With a cost of just $4 million per unit, the RQ-1 Predator Drone (and, with a $36.8 million per unit price tag, its admittedly more expensive MQ-9 Reaper sister) are able to accomplish many of the primary tasks of the F-35 at a fraction of the cost.

Given its high cost, slow delivery, challenging track record, and increasingly questionable purpose, why has the F-35 program not been shelved or more dramatically cut back?

That’s the real genus. The production line for the F-35 program is spread across 25 different states, employing workers in each. This makes the program difficult to cut, as Senators from each of those states (which comprise half of the U.S. Senate) are usually reluctant to just programs that employ people in their home districts. The exemplar of this was a request last year by the U.S. military to eliminate funding for a second engine for every F-35. The President wanted the cuts, the Pentagon said the engines were unnecessary.

Production Locations for the F-35.

Production Locations for the F-35.

But Congress refused to cut the second engine program. Indeed, several high ranking members of Congress sharply criticized the Pentagon after it ordered the shuttering of the program. The program was eventually shuttered despite opposition, but not before more than $3.5 billion in federal funding had been spent. Not a single engine was delivered.

What do you think? Does the F-35 joint strike fighter have an important role in maintaining American military readiness? Are its primary functions now performed by drone aircraft? Why has the program continued? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Credible Commitment, Painful Triggers, and the Debt Ceiling Compromise

President Obama signs the Budget Control Act of 2011, which threatens automatic spending cuts distasteful to both parties.

The resolution of the debt ceiling standoff in Congress provides a nice illustration of the problem of credible commitment and the unusual steps that are required for political leaders to overcome this problem.

The problem of credible commitment is ubiquitous in domestic and international politics–it afflicts individual leaders, political parties, countries, ethnic groups, and IGOs–and it centers on the difficulty actors have in credibly (believably) promising to do something that appears not to be in their interests.  For example, Israel could seek to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians by promising that if the Palestinian state had no army or foreign troops on its territory, Israel would never reoccupy the Palestinian territories.  But given Israel’s military superiority, its past behavior, and its likely desire to reoccupy territories such as the West Bank if it perceived threats coming from those territories, this commitment is not inherently believable.

In order to overcome this problem and make an inherently unbelievable threat or promise believable, an actor needs to set up mechanisms that increase the likelihood that it will abide by its commitment.  This has been called a strategically self-imposed constraint, and it involves “tying one’s hands” in some way so that backing down from the commitment becomes difficult.  In the game of chicken, referenced in a previous blog post on the debt limit showdown, this would involve removing the steering wheel and throwing it out the window to signal that even if one wanted to swerve it was now impossible.

Public pledges to act a certain way create audience costs (particularly in democracies) such that backing down will make the leader look weak or untrustworthy to key constituencies and carry serious political costs.  In the case of the U.S. Congress’ promise to cut the deficit, public pledges were not deemed sufficient constraints and Congress resorted to an interesting “trigger mechanism” that will unleash automatic, deep cuts in the event Congress fails to agree on specific spending cuts.  Significantly, the automatic cuts would slash $600 billion from defense spending (anathema to Republicans) and $600 billion from domestic programs (a bitter pill for Democrats).  The hope is that these blunt automatic cuts would be so distasteful that even a bitterly divided Congress would keep its word and reach agreement on a plan to cut spending by $1.5 trillion.  As an Economist blog post summarizing the deal concluded, “The thinking is that these cuts would inflict such pain on both Republican and Democratic pet priorities that they will labour mightily to come up with an alternative.”

However, as one advocate of a balanced budget pointed out, “Anything Congress does, Congress can undo. They can’t really bind themselves. You really have to have a political will to make these things work or they won’t.”  Is this critic right?  Will this trigger threat prove effective, and if not, is there any way for Congress to bind itself?

Is America at War in Libya?

A U.S. warship launches a missile in support of NATO operations in Libya.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday issued a harsh rebuke of the Obama administration by refusing to authorize the Libya intervention (by a vote of 295-123), but it also voted down a resolution that would have cut off funding for military operations in Libya.  Interestingly, a closer analysis of this vote shows that a majority of House members favor cutting off funds, but many anti-war members (particularly Democrats) voted against the defunding resolution because it didn’t go far enough, and would have allowed support activities such as surveillance and refueling.

As discussed previously in this blog, many members of Congress charge that Obama has flouted the 1973 War Powers Act by launching military operations in Libya without receiving Congressional authorization.  The Obama administration’s response it that its limited support functions in Libya do not constitute the type of hostilities that would require Congressional authorization.  These legal arguments are detailed here.  Many members of Congress and other critics aren’t buying this logic; they say we are obviously at war and Obama’s lawyers are purposely evading the truth to escape accountability.  In a blog post titled “Obama, we’re at war. Stop insulting us,” Stephen Walt compares America’s actions to the dictionary definition of war, and concludes:

“By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn’t being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.”

This dispute highlights the ways in which democratic leaders must deal with checks and balances on their war-making powers, as democratic peace theory contends, albeit in the context of a presidential system that frequently gives the U.S. president greater decision-making authority than prime ministers enjoy in parliamentary systems.  The Libya case also illustrates how factors at multiple levels of analysis can influence policymaking.  Although realists (particularly neorealists) emphasize constraints and opportunities at the international system level and downplay variables that differentiate states and individuals, the Libya intervention shows that individuals and domestic political institutions matter.  Not only was the initial intervention driven by the beliefs of Obama and his top advisers, but a recent story by Josh Rogin suggests that the administration’s failure to handle the politics of Congressional authorization with anything approaching deftness can be attributed to the physical exhaustion of top officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  The fact that Congress has the power to cut off funds for the Libya mission (and, according to some observers, could finally do so through an amendment to a Pentagon appropriations bill after the Fourth of July) demonstrates that the structure of domestic political institutions can have a powerful impact on countries’ foreign policy behavior.