Event Roundup: From the Executive Branch to Congress – National Security Leaders Who Crossed the Divide

What is it like to go from working in the executive branch – whether it’s in the White House, the Pentagon, or the CIA – to being a lawmaker on Capitol Hill?

That was the focus of a conversation last month hosted by NYU Law’s Reiss Center on Law and Security in Washington, D.C. The panel discussion, moderated by Lisa Monaco, former homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama, brought together a unique set of lawmakers who share this unusual set of experiences: Representatives Will Hurd (R-Tex.), Andy Kim (D-N.J.), and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.).

It was a rare opportunity to hear from a group of legislators who all have extensive national security experience in the executive branch. The wide-ranging conversation covered the ways each person’s executive branch experience now shapes their work in Congress. It also addressed a number of current events in national security including President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and election security in advance of the 2020 election. It also considered Congress’ institutional role in foreign policy and national security issues.

For those who could not attend the event, here are the key themes and takeaways from the discussion. You can also watch the panel discussion on C-SPAN here.

How executive branch experience can shape legislative work

Representatives Hurd, Kim, and Slotkin each spent significant portions of their careers in the executive branch working on national security issues before running for Congress – Hurd in the CIA; Kim in the State Department and at the National Security Council (NSC); and Slotkin in the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the NSC, and the Defense Department. Each spoke at length about the ways that their executive branch service influences their current work in Congress. Hurd discussed the challenge of transitioning from an information-gathering role to a policy-creation role, and later noted optimistically that newer members of Congress who had careers outside of politics before being elected have “a bias towards action” and a problem-solving mentality that will be beneficial to Congress in the long run.

Kim observed that Congress tends to have a more reactionary attitude regarding national security issues and frequently fails to adequately utilize “certain fundamental tools of national security.” He hopes to address the latter issue by drawing on his own network of national security experts in support of his legislative work. Slotkin described the cultural differences that distinguish the executive and legislative branches. Whereas the executive branch is “a chain of command organization” united by “real mission focus,” Congress is comprised of 535 “entrepreneurs,” and that spirit of entrepreneurship demands a kind of consensus building that is not required in executive branch operations. Echoing Kim’s comments, she also argued that “the legislative branch should actually educate themselves” on national security issues so it can properly perform its oversight function.

Bipartisan concern about Syria

The panel echoed the bipartisan criticism of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria and expressed concern that the decision threatens the credibility of the “American handshake,” as Slotkin put it, with international allies and partners. She also argued that alliances and partnerships with groups like the Kurds have minimized the exposure of American forces to frontline fighting, and that the decision to withdraw from Syria will make it more difficult to form similar partnerships in the future, meaning American forces will have to bear more responsibility for frontline fighting in future conflicts.

Hurd suggested that the decision will affect other relationships, including Western alliances, observing that Japan’s recent decision to not participate in U.S.-led efforts to protect ships in the Middle East may have been caused in part by declining American credibility. He also expressed concern about Syria being a precedent for Afghanistan.

“Let’s hope this is not a precursor to Afghanistan, because if something similar were to happen in Afghanistan, it would be more disastrous then this move in Syria,” he said.

Kim emphasized that the decision appears to have been made without input from – and had in fact blindsided – many important foreign policy and national security professionals in the government, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey. The sidelining of career professionals, he suggested, means that American foreign policy and national security are being shaped without the benefit of importance expertise.

The challenges presented by election security and the need for action

Both Hurd and Kim emphasized the complexity of election security and the challenge of dealing with disinformation. Kim argued that Congress needs to “wrap [its] heads around what it is that’s going to be [America’s] posture writ large on cybersecurity before we start to have a meaningful impact.” Hurd focused on one particular problem: the question of who is responsible for addressing disinformation. Who in the government is responsible and what duties do social media and other private technology companies have? He compared this uncertainty to the clear statutory responsibility that the intelligence community has for foreign intelligence gathering.

Slotkin stressed that Congress has passed no new laws to make the 2020 election any safer than the 2016 election, but highlighted the work of Task Force Sentry, a bipartisan group of representatives who studied election security and considered legislative solutions, and her proposed Paid Ads Act, which would make it illegal for a foreign person to buy an advertisement for or against a political candidate in an American election. (Editor’s note: On October 24, three days after the event, the House of Representatives went on to pass the SHIELD Act, portions of which were modeled after the PAID AD Act.)

Congress needs to improve the way it talks to the American people about national security and foreign affairs

In discussing the ways Congress can reassert itself in foreign policy and national security matters, the panel touched on the need for better communication between lawmakers and their constituents. Hurd emphasized that representatives need to do a better job articulating why foreign policy and national security issues are important to the average American – “why a mother who is worried about putting her kids through school, or worried about an elderly father who has dementia,” should care about Syria or Yemen?

Kim echoed this point, arguing “we have to speak more human about national security and foreign policy,” “cut out the acronyms,” and “get to the point.” Hurd also drew a connection between national security and electoral competitiveness.

“If more districts were like mine, which is truly 50-50, then you will get a certain kind of person up here who knows how to try to be focused on getting things done…rather than talking to the edges,” he said.

Slotkin observed that the American people are no longer willing to defer to the “national security elite” in Washington that have dominated U.S. foreign policy and national security since World War II. She challenged the foreign policy community to do more to connect with the rest of the country, “who are sending, for the vast majority, the soldiers, the marines, the sailor, the airmen” that serve.

Institutional concerns in national security in the Trump era

Both Kim and Slotkin discussed the sense that our national security institutions and national security professionals appear to be under attack in the Trump era. Kim argued that the “politicization of our national security” is a serious existential threat to our national security. The effect of such politicization will be felt in the future as qualified men and women seek opportunities in the private sector, rather than pursue government service. Slotkin described the mechanisms that already exist for bringing back civil servants who have departed government in a future administration. She was optimistic about the ability of a future administration to rebuild the civil service in places like the State Department. 

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About the Author(s)

William Dawley

William Dawley is a JD candidate at NYU School of Law where he is a Student Scholar at the Reiss Center on Law and Security, Senior Articles Editor for the NYU Journal of International Law and Politics.