Did President Bush Have to Submit a National Security Strategy Report to Congress?

History Q & A

The National Security Strategy (NSS) report was born out of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, the fourth major post-World War II reorganization of the U.S. Defense Department. It is one of more than 2,000 reports that federal departments, agencies, commissions, and bureaus must submit to Congress each year.

In requiring a wide-ranging, yet detailed annual report, the 99th Congress that passed Goldwater-Nichols hoped to remedy what it considered a major shortfall of Cold War era executive branches-the inability to formulate and communicate concrete mid- and long-term national security strategy. "Few in the Congress at that time doubted that there existed a grand strategy," Don Snider, a political scientist at the U.S. Military Academy, has noted. "What they doubted, or disagreed with, was its focus in terms of values, interests, and objectives; its coherence in terms of relating means to ends; its integration in terms of the elements of power; and its time horizon." Requiring the report was also a way for Congress to ensure greater civilian control over the military and its planning, a major political theme of the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

Yet the quality of the NSS depends on how willing presidential administrations are to be frank and forthcoming. Over the last 16 years, most have interpreted Congress's mandate loosely. Former President Bill Clinton's first NSS reportedly went through 21 drafts before it was finally submitted a year and a half late. (George W. Bush also missed the deadline for his first report by more than a year. It was due June 15, 2001.) And relevance problems have been common. Several reports in the 1990s were rendered all but obsolete by rapid changes in the global geopolitical picture. They were, in political-speak, overtaken by events. Others, like George Bush Sr.'s 1993 report, turned out to be little more than cheerleading sessions for an administration's foreign policy accomplishments. "Even when submitted, the National Security Strategy report has generally been late," a frustrated Sen. Strom Thurmond barked to colleagues in 1994. "In addition," Thurmond added, "the…report has seldom met the expectations of those of us who participated in passing the Goldwater-Nichols Act."

That the report has fallen short of the expectations held by Goldwater-Nichols supporters like Thurmond shouldn't come as a surprise, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. The result was predictable. Every presidential administration views Congress as a competitor, rather than a partner, "even when the same party controls both," says Sabato. As a result, "information about a critical subject like national security is power-pure, raw power-and the stakes are high. Rarely is power generously shared or given away in Washington."