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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Unified National Security Budget? Issues for Congress

Catherine Dale, Coordinator
Specialist in International Security

Nina M. Serafino
Specialist in International Security Affairs

Pat Towell
Specialist in U.S. Defense Policy and Budget

In recent years a number of observers and practitioners have identified various facets of U.S. government national security practice—decision-making, strategy-making, budgeting, planning and execution, and congressional oversight—as inherently “cross-cutting.” They have in mind arenas—such as counterterrorism, and stabilization and reconstruction—that by definition involve multiple agencies, or for which responsibilities could be divided up in any number of ways among various agencies. For such facets of national security, they argue, the U.S. government is seldom able to conduct genuinely holistic consideration. The cost, they add, is a loss of effectiveness, or efficiency, or both.

In order to encourage holistic consideration of national security issues, some members of this inchoate school have called for the use of “unified national security budgeting” (UNSB). To be clear, their goal is not to refine the U.S. federal system of budgeting, but rather to use budgetary mechanisms to drive changes in U.S. national security practices. Within this broad school of thought, various proponents call for the adoption of a number of different approaches, from a single shared funding pool for all national security activities, to mission-specific funding pools, to crosscut displays, to more strategically driven budgeting. In turn, various proponents apparently aim to achieve quite different kinds of change with their proposed remedies—from rebalancing the distribution of roles and responsibilities among executive branch agencies, to saving money, to revisiting fundamental understandings about how U.S. national security is best protected.

For Congress, constitutionally mandated to control the power of the purse, the most fundamental issue at stake may be ensuring the integrity of the overall federal budgeting system—there may be no single best answer regarding how it should function, but that it function would seem to be of paramount importance. At the same time, while the current system does not adjudicate “national security” in an explicit, bounded way, and while no single, generally agreed definition of the boundaries of “national security” exists, Congress has oversight responsibility for any number of activities and executive branch agencies that could reasonably be considered to contribute to national security, and thus vested interests in both the effectiveness and the efficiency of U.S. national security practices. A basic challenge for Congress may be fundamental tensions between optimizing the overall federal budgeting system, and optimizing for its national security sub-system.

For any set of “unified budgeting” proposals, it may be helpful to Congress to consider what problems the proposals are designed to address; the potential costs and benefits that implementing the proposals might introduce; the risks the proposals might pose to the functioning of the current overall U.S. federal budgeting system; and how the impact of the implementation of the proposals would best be gauged.

Date of Report: March 14, 2013
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: R42997
Price: $29.95

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