New to Congress, Wise to the World


Representative Max Rose thinks Congress has surrendered its national security authority, ceding too much power to presidents to make war and enter into international agreements.

“Congress has just extricated itself from any involvement in foreign policy decisions,” said Mr. Rose, a Democratic freshman whose district includes Staten Island and part of southern Brooklyn. “Like, if you want to kill people in a country, if you want to lower tariffs in regards to a country, you’ve got to get our approval.”

“That’s not a value statement,” he added, “that’s just a statement about upholding the Constitution. But it’s also a political statement, too, in that we are willing to have skin in the game.”

Mr. Rose himself has had skin in the game. He is a former Army platoon leader who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Afghanistan, and is active in the National Guard.

That puts him in a notable subset of the 67 new representatives who swung control of the House to the Democrats in the 2018 elections. Of that group, 10 served in the military, intelligence agencies or diplomatic service and bring expertise to a body where practical skills and deep knowledge about war, peace, foreign aid, diplomacy and geostrategic thinking are in short supply.

I invited Mr. Rose and one of his congressional pals, Representative Abigail Spanberger, Democrat of Virginia, a former C.I.A. case officer, to discuss how they and their national security cohort expects to have an impact.

“My national security experience colors everything I touch,” Ms. Spanberger said as her 5-year-old daughter, Catherine, raptly watched a video nearby. “It impacts my views on global climate change, it impacts my views on food security, in my district on educational issues, everything. And so I think that what we bring to the table is a fierce commitment to the idea that we can actually fix things, no matter how broken the system is or feels at times.”

While new Democratic members like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have worried some in the party by pushing an unyielding liberal line, Mr. Rose and Ms. Spanberger occupy a more moderate space as part of the Blue Dog Coalition, which advocates a bipartisan approach to the budget and national defense.

“One thing I do think we all agree on, on a high level, is that the last generation has seen, in regards to Congress and foreign policy, a massive dereliction of duty,” said Mr. Rose, 32, who won his Republican-leaning district by roughly six percentage points.

The president will always be the most powerful force on American national security. But the founders also gave Congress a crucial role. A Congress emboldened by these new Democrats to accept that role could claw back some of the power usurped by presidents and provide a needed check on the executive branch.

Congress has long feared that taking on that responsibility could backfire politically if it means sending a constituent’s son or daughter to war. When President Barack Obama wanted lawmakers to vote in 2013 on taking military action after Syria used chemical weapons against civilians, lawmakers recoiled at being dragged into the decision and refused to vote. Later, some members berated the president for not taking unilateral action.

Similarly, after passing laws in 2001 and 2003 authorizing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress for years refused to weigh in again as presidents extended military operations to the Islamic State and other militants in Syria, Pakistan, North Africa, Somalia and Yemen. Only recently, after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has Congress given final passage to a bipartisan resolution to end American military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Mr. Trump vetoed the measure on Tuesday.

“We are in this situation where people don’t have to be accountable” and instead can place the blame on the president, Ms. Spanberger, who is 39, said. “Our group is united on this issue of we should actually be upholding our constitutional duty.”

The two lawmakers perceive the threats facing the nation somewhat differently. Mr. Rose emphasizes cyberattacks and the risk of terrorists obtaining a nuclear dirty bomb. Ms. Spanberger cites lesser-known dangers, like the fact that about 70 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 would not qualify for the military because they are overweight, don’t meet education standards or have felony records or behavioral issues. Both feel an urgency to act on climate change. Mr. Rose is adamant about getting out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Ms. Spanberger wants more detail about how that would be done and the potential consequences.

Still, though Mr. Rose and Ms. Spanberger don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue — he opposed the Iran nuclear deal, she supported it, for example — they share an easy friendship, a desire to address problems in a nonpartisan way and a determination to prove Congress can actually get things done.

“I promised him I’d never let him eat alone at the lunch table ever,” Ms. Spanberger said as they both erupted in hearty laughter.

“Abigail’s going to be president,” Mr. Rose said a few minutes later.


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