A Professional Military Education for Congress
The U.S. military loves formal education. Commissioned officers attend professional military education at every stage of their careers from pre-commissioning to executive-level ranks. Initially, training focuses on teaching the basic skills required of all airmen, sailors, soldiers, and marines, job specific-training, and small-unit leadership. Then, at roughly the ten-year mark, officers partake in intermediate-level and senior-level coursework that emphasizes a congressionally mandated curriculum in national military strategy, joint planning, joint doctrine, joint command and control, force requirements development and operational contracting. This standardized coursework aims to produce “strategically minded joint leaders who possess an intuitive approach to joint warfighting built on individual service competencies,” and it relies on an officer’s previous ten plus years of military experience to provide the context that makes it effective.
The U.S. government fails to provide the same quality of professional education to a more influential group—the 535 Senators, Representatives, and their staff who craft the nation’s $600 billion-dollar defense budget, exercise oversight of U.S. armed forces, and though they rarely exercise it, hold power to declare war.
Currently, congressional staffers can attend some intermediate-level and senior-level joint professional military education courses available to servicemembers, but none of these programs specifically prepare staff for defense legislative challenges, and they assume military fluency built over a decade (or more) of experience. Furthermore, Representatives and Senators are ineligible to enroll. Staffers can also attend seminars put on by organizations like the Massachusetts Institute for Technology Security Studies Program and the National Defense University on broad topics like “An Introduction to National Security Strategy.” They also have opportunities to participate in fellowships and programs from organizations like the Foreign Policy Institute, Wilson Center, the Truman National Security Project that provides interaction with foreign policy and defense experts in small-group settings.
Unfortunately, the above opportunities do not provide a standardized baseline of training to congressional members or their staff. None of them are required, and curriculums change at the whim of the sponsoring organization. Perhaps more importantly, none of them offers micro-level education on the services and issues for which Congress writes legislation. What is the point of offering coursework to congressional members and staff on joint planning, doctrine, and warfighting if they do not understand how a fighter squadron trains, carrier strike group operates, or infantry battalion fights? The curriculums above offer congressional staff more of the big-picture defense and international relations theory many staffers have received in both undergraduate and graduate school without filling in the basics that contribute to fuller understanding and typically come from military or government civilian service.
For Congress, micro-level understanding of the Department of Defense may seem unnecessary, but it yields better policy. Small decisions at the macro-level ripple through the force and the impacts are easier to discern with tactical understanding. A decision, for example, not to appropriate funds for an additional aircraft carrier may appear minuscule in the context of a National Defense Appropriations Act, but could have great impacts on fleet readiness. Ceteris Paribas, The U.S. Navy would need to place aircraft carriers and their crews on lengthier deployments to meet defense commitments, reducing the lifespans of the U.S. carrier fleet, and driving down re-enlistment rates among sailors forced to spend even more time away from family and friends. Understanding of military operational realities, culture, and service agendas can help legislators and their staffs craft policy with greater insight into the effect on the millions of servicemembers and civilians who will execute their laws.
Congress’s lack of standardized defense education has likely had greater impact as congressional rates of military service have declined in parallel with the general population. Less than 20 percent of congressional members are veterans, but as recently as 1990, nearly 60 percent of Congress had had a stint in uniform. Even in the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC), less than 35 percent of representatives have served in the military. Only 31 politicians out of the 91 who oversee appropriations for the military have any experience as members of the organizations that will execute their policies and follow their budgets. The professional staff who support the armed service committees have similar levels of military experience. Out of 26 policy leads on the SASC, examination of 21 accessible LinkedIn profiles suggests that just five are former service members.
Professional staffers on the armed services committee have daunting responsibilities. On average, just two staffers from both the majority and minority parties serve on each of the seven subcommittees of the SASC, ranging in subject from cyberspace to personnel readiness. In addition to subcommittee responsibilities, each of these staffers takes the lead on a multitude of issues. For example, SASC professional staffer Ben Fitzgerald covers acquisition policy, competition policy, contracting, industrial base policy, IT acquisition policy, mergers and acquisitions, operations test & evaluation, and small business programs by himself for the majority. Most other staffers share similar burdens!
A gradual reduction in both the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service since the late 1970s magnifies the impact on overworked staffs. In 2016, both organizations employed 20 percent fewer staffers than they did in 1979. Without sufficient internal resources, congressional leaders are forced to rely on agenda-led think tanks and lobbyists for subject matter expertise.
It is frightening that the United States spends more resources training an E-1 Private to be an infantryman ($54,000) than we do the small number of professional and personal staffers that assist legislators in shaping the nation's defense policies. It is equally troubling that incoming Senators and Representatives do not receive a standardized, non-partisan curriculum that would serve as a base to prepare them to absorb information on the defense enterprise and that they are not permitted to attend distance-learning military education courses like their staff. In 2016, the U.S. Army provided over 6,000 Majors, international officers, and civil servants with intermediate level education. Why would we not provide equal educational opportunities tailored to the personal staff, professional staff, Representatives, and Senators that shape national defense?
Congress should rectify this oversight. There are five schools from the military education system within an hour of the nation’s capital: the National Defense University, Defense Acquisition University, National Intelligence University, Marine Corps University, and the Naval Academy. All host premier instructors in their fields who would be capable of teaching classes for the professional and personal staff of lawmakers assigned to national security related committees. Instructors could even come from hundreds of thousands of veterans, civil servants, and servicemembers who populate the DC area and often have recent practical experience.
Members of Congress with limited national security experience could attend as well. Many legislators are only assigned to the House or SASCs because their districts contain large military populations. One or two nights each week, with emphasis on staffers during congressional recesses, experts in the Washington area could offer classes within walking distance of Capitol Hill that provides both lectures on building block national security topics. Instead of duplicating coursework on strategic-level topics like “creating a national security strategy,” congressional students could receive lectures that set a foundation for their participation in distance-learning professional military education courses and think-tank led programs.
To manage this program, the House and SASCs could each hire a nonpartisan educational director (preferably a retired senior officer or non-commissioned officer), tasked with creating and scheduling a curriculum based on inputs from both majority and minority members. This director could select instructors from military fellows, legislative liaisons, and area servicemembers and create modular classes scheduled in conjunction with congressional schedules and agendas. In addition to continuing education, the education director could script a two- to four-week crash course for freshmen committee members focused on creating a base-level of knowledge in legislators and their staffers working on an armed services committee. Committee members could fill the program with topics they retrospectively wish they knew more about and update the program of study with lessons learned each year. All of this could be accomplished for a relatively low sum. The salary of education director would likely be no more than the current SASC Staff Director (~$171,000), and adjunct salaries rarely surpass $5,000 per class. A congressional military education program would likely cost less than $1 million per annum, the approximate cost of putting 20 infantrymen through their initial training.
Every year the United States spends millions of dollars on the professional military education of uniformed service members. Officers, in particular, receive standardized instruction in topics handled by ranks and pay grades they may never reach. For a lesser sum and much greater marginal return, the country can provide a professional curriculum to fit the needs of the SASC, HASC, committee professional staffers, and personal staff directly on Capitol Hill. With so few individuals managing such a large bureaucracy, the efficiency of their education matters and it has an outsized impact relative to cost. And while we would prefer to see more veterans serving as congressional staffers, in no way do we claim that military or government service effectively prepares an individual to conduct defense policy support on its own. Congress needs a diverse staff. Individuals with legislative and policy backgrounds offer incredible utility, and in a perfect world, Congress would forge hybrid staffers with strong military, legislative, or policy backgrounds who mitigate weaknesses with directed training and education.
For decades, Congress has gradually allowed the executive branch to grow its war powers at the expense of the legislature, and it needs an educational program that strengthens its in-house expertise to better balance martial authorities between branches of government. The United States asks its military to be a learning organization; taxpayers should expect no less from our elected representatives.
Jules Hurst is an Army Reserve Officer. He has deployed four times as a Senior Intelligence Officer.
Sam Stowers is an Army Reserve Officer. He formerly served as a Defense Fellow on Capitol Hill.
The views expressed here are their own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.