While national security lawyers argue over whether Steve Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council is legal or not, members of Congress are pushing back to close whatever statutory loophole even might render legal what is clearly a violation of long-standing national security norms.
In one of last week’s most under-reported stories in the major press, bills were introduced into both the House of Representatives and the US Senate this past week, each designed to clarify the composition of the NSC and Principals Committee, ensure Senate oversight over appointments, and, in the case of HR 804, “To Protect the National Security Council from Political Interference.” As of today, the House bill has 85 co-sponsors.
So far co-sponsors are all Democrats, but Congressional opposition to Bannon’s appointment is bi-partisan, with concern about the dangers of politicizing the NSC expressed on both sides of the aisle. As of today, a MoveOn petition is collecting signatures for the Senate Bill, and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security is taking calls from Americans about Steve Bannon’s role on the NSC. People are taking notice.
Neither of these bills is simply about removing Bannon, however. Each aims to close what some observers perceive as a loophole not just for Trump but for future Presidents. Both would codify the role of the Director of National Intelligence and Joint Chiefs of Staff on the NSC. In this Administration that move, coupled with Bannon’s departure, could moderate the behavior of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whose hard-line views against Islam and unwillingness to rule out torture or the killing of terrorists’ families have been criticized by human rights groups.
Passing such a bill will be a tall order even with bipartisan support in a Republican-held Congress. Even it if passes Trump would likely veto. Still, long-shot efforts to pass legislation can become important sites for political agenda-setting. As scholars of legislative agenda-setting have found, even a “dead on arrival” bill that garners sufficient media coverage can educate the public about issues and institutions, and galvanize interest group support for wider issues and future elections.
In short, even fighting for a lost cause can have an important norm-setting effect. It elevates the importance of an issue in the public discourse. In this case, that issue is the principle that national security decisions be subject to expert input and insulated from domestic political maneuvering. And turning up the volume on those messages is useful not only for potentially changing policy but for communicating to third parties, including outside US borders, that Trump is not acting on the will of the people.