by David P. Auerswald and Colton C. Campbell (eds.). New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 280pp. $99.00 Cloth. ISBN 9781107006867. $29.99 Paper. ISBN: 9780521187268.

Reviewed by Darren A. Wheeler, Department of Political Science, Ball State University. Email: dawheeler [at]


With all of the attention devoted to presidential war powers in the wake of 9/11 the public can almost be forgiven if it has forgotten about the role that Congress plays in national security policy making. Congress has been roundly criticized from all quarters for its lack of initiative and oversight in the War on Terror. With this blizzard of criticism we are often left to wonder: “Is Congress adequately organized to deal with national security issues in an integrated and coordinated manner” (p.i)? This is the central question that animates the discussions found in Auerswald and Campbell’s CONGRESS AND THE POLITICS OF NATIONAL SECURITY.

The volume “focuses on the role of Congress in national security policy both across time and a variety of security issues” (p.13). While a few chapters to do touch on congressional responses to 9/11, the book’s focus is much broader than this. The book is divided into three sections: historical and institutional challenges, oversight challenges, and policy challenges. The first section is the most cohesive of the three as the chapters flow well and complement one another nicely. They also do a good job of setting the stage for the oversight and policy chapters that follow. In Chapter One Auerswald and Campbell introduce several of the themes which resurface throughout the remainder of the book: how structural issues impact congressional national security actions, the negative effects of hyper-partisanship, and the importance of developing incentives so that Congress has the will to use its constitutionally assigned powers in the field of national security. In Chapter Two Robert David Johnson traces the evolution of national security policy making in Congress through several eras including the current era of “hyper-partisanship”. Collectively, these two chapters provide a good, concise background that explains how Congress got where it is today in the field of national security and what forces continue to drive its actions in this area. Undergraduates without much exposure to the congressional role in national security should find them particularly useful. Chapter Three picks up on the theme of hyper-partisanship and discusses the negative impact that it has had on Congress’ ability to respond to 21st century national security challenges ranging from the implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations to a circumscribed oversight role over important executive branch anti-terror policies.

The second section of the book focuses particularly on the oversight challenges facing Congress in the area of national [*536] security. Consisting of Chapters 4-8, it expands on the themes outlined in the first section. Of particular emphasis in each of these chapters are examples of how institutional structures shape and impact congressional actions. Pat Towell’s chapter on congress and defense examines the circumstances under which House and Senate defense committees can use their oversight role to impact policymaking and defense authorizations. In Chapter Five Timothy Balunis and William Hemphill critique the problems associated with the fragmented oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. Chapters Six and Seven provide examples of how institutional incentives impact oversight in the areas of intelligence and foreign aid. When incentives aren’t there ‒ and often they’re not ‒ oversight suffers. The result is an episodic rather than a sustained approach to national security oversight. Collectively, this section articulates the view that oversight is important, that it plays a useful role in the policy making process, and that there can be negative consequences when it is done poorly.

Section three is titled “Policy Challenges: Contours of Debate.” Interestingly enough, this section both narrows and broadens the book’s focus. It narrows the focus by concentrating on particular policy topics such as enemy combatant detainees, arms control, and national security surveillance. Each chapter summarizes the history and important issues in each area. These chapters also broaden the scope of the analysis in the sense that it is here where the interactions between Congress and the president and Congress and the courts are best on display. While the other chapters usually look inward at the institution and its members, these chapters remind us of the dual challenge that faces Congress. First, Congress must overcome its own structural and incentive-based institutional challenges if it is to act. Second, it must compete with the president and the judiciary for national security policy influence.

This book would be suitable for a variety of upper-division undergraduate courses including Congress, U.S. Defense Policy, U.S. Foreign Policy, or even a general class on public policy. The length makes it a suitable supplementary text and the level of writing is appropriate for undergraduates. Many of the chapters do a good job of providing background so it is not really necessary for readers to approach this book with any significant prior knowledge or Congress or national security. The coverage of issues is generally good. One surprise ‒ not necessarily a flaw, but a surprise ‒ is that there is no chapter on the initiation of military hostilities. Granted, there has been a considerable amount written on this subject in the past but the role of Congress in initiating the use of military force continues to be of great importance as recent encounters in Libya and Syria demonstrate. There are basically two ways academics could use this book. One is to assign the entire book as a supplemental text. While at first blush, it could be easy for a reader to miss the common threads that are woven throughout most of the chapters, the themes of hyper-partisanship, oversight challenges, and the structural challenges associated with national security are recurrent enough that the entire text could comprise a focused component for numerous upper-level Political Science classes. A second use for this book would be to serve as a [*537] resource for researchers who might be looking for information on any of the issues the text covers. In this capacity, readers might only be interested in a chapter or two rather than the entire book.

Of note to the readers of the LAW & POLITICS BOOK REVIEW is the fact that a focus on the role of the courts in national security or the relationship between the courts and Congress in this area is largely absent. Those looking for a book that focuses on the relationship between Congress and the courts in national security policy making will not find that here. There are a handful of chapters, specifically Louis Fisher’s on National Security Surveillance and Bernard Horowitz and Harvey Rishikof’s chapter on Enemy Combatant Detainees, where discussions of the courts can be found but these types of discussions are the exception rather than the rule.

Criticizing the contemporary Congress is easy, perhaps too easy. Criticisms are legion, while constructive solutions are less so. It can be tempting to throw up our hands and despair that it is the president alone who controls national security policy. But Congress is not impotent. The Constitution provides Congress with a variety of war and foreign affairs powers making it an indispensable partner in the development and implementation of U.S. national security policy. Auerswald and Campbell contribute a useful discussion that attempts to ascertain how we can structure incentives to provide Congress with the will to exercise these powers.

Copyright 2013 by the author, Darren Wheeler.