January 31, 2017

National Security Priorities for 115th Congress


  • Congress has the opportunity to begin to repair the damage done by an eight-year absence of U.S. leadership.
  • Priorities include reauthorizing the surveillance authorities of FISA section 702 and debating the constraints placed on the military by the Budget Control Act.
  • Congress must also conduct vigorous oversight of the administration’s national security policy, such as implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement.

Reauthorize FISA Title VII

The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 updated Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A new section 702 created procedures for targeting non-U.S. persons for surveillance outside the United States. These invaluable authorities expire at the end of this year. It would be a grievous error to allow them to expire or to curtail them beyond recognition.

In 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called this kind of surveillance one of the intelligence community’s “most important tools.” The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said in a 2014 report that the 702 program has helped to “discover previously unknown terrorist operatives and disrupt specific terrorist plots.” The board said it “found no evidence of intentional abuse” of these authorities. 

Congress previously reauthorized the program in 2012. Oversight of the use of these authorities is extensive and substantial by all three branches of government. 

Oversight of section 702 surveillance

115th NS Priorities

Debate Budget Control Act Defense Spending Restrictions

The preamble of the Constitution makes clear that one of the purposes for the founding of the national government was to “provide for the common defense.” National security experts have said that the cuts to defense spending made by the Budget Control Act and its automatic enforcement mechanisms hinder this goal. In 2015, General James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “no foe in the field can wreck such havoc on our security that mindless sequestration is achieving.”

The National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review described how full implementation of the cuts would be $937 billion over 10 years, compared to the fiscal year 2012 budget submission under Secretary Robert Gates. The 2012 request was the last one before the sequester and revised caps structure went into effect. Congress has given the Department of Defense limited relief from these drastic spending cuts in past years, but not full relief.

In its deliberations on this topic, Congress should recall the counsel of Henry Kissinger to the Armed Services Committee in 2015: “the United States should have a strategy-driven budget, not a budget-driven strategy.” Admiral Michael Mullen, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, often warned that the national debt is the greatest threat to our national security. 

Authorization Bills

A defense authorization bill has been signed into law every year for more than 50 years. The Senate should build on the momentum from last year, when an authorization bill for the Department of State was passed into law for the first time in many years. An intelligence community authorization bill has been passed into law for each year since fiscal year 2010. The fiscal year 2017 bill is now on the Senate hotline.

Oversight and Nominations

Congress has an important duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch’s national security work, to evaluate the president’s nominees for national security positions, and to legislate on these issues when needed. Among the priorities must be:

  • Iran’s belligerent behavior and implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement – the deal does not preclude sanctions over Iran’s ballistic missile tests or support for terrorism
  • Continuing viability of Islamist terrorist groups
  • Russian aggression
  • Chinese expansionist claims in the South China Sea
  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s systematic repression of his people’s universal human rights with the assistance of Russia and Iran

Issue Tag: National Security