Congress And SDI: The Battle For The Future Of The Project
The Reagan administration's campaign for SDI ran into difficulty for several reasons. It was launched at a time when Congress was generally eager to assert a stronger constitutional role in foreign policy—an attitude originally generated by the Vietnam War but strengthened during the nuclear-freeze campaign when many members of Congress came to feel that they alone represented their constituents' concerns at a time when the administration was ignoring them. Arms control was so low on the agenda of the Reagan administration that many Democrats in Congress came to feel that if it were to be promoted actively, they would have to be the ones to do so. Members of Congress were influenced by the strong opposition to SDI from the scientific community and by the skepticism they knew prevailed within the Pentagon itself. In addition, their own Office of Technology Assessment produced reports that cast serious doubts on the project. Many in Congress seemed to conclude that although they might risk the ire of the voters by challenging the entire basis of SDI, they would be safe in taking a skeptical attitude by keeping appropriations below those requested and by insisting that the program conform to the ABM Treaty. Although the president was able to quiet some of the opposition in Congress by arguing that it ought not to tie his hands in negotiations with the Soviets before Reykjavík, the failure of that meeting to produce an agreement and the administration's insistence on promoting its reinterpretation of the treaty provoked a strong response from the Democrats, especially after they gained control of both houses of Congress in the 1986 election during which the president had made SDI an issue. When the voters ignored his request for support, SDI critics were all the more emboldened.
In the immediate aftermath of the president's SDI speech, both support
and opposition appeared in Congress, but neither was very strong. The division developed along party lines, particularly as the issue was injected into the 1984 election campaign. When Mondale charged that the proposal would militarize the heavens, the president responded that SDI was a research program—something even Mondale admitted was advisable—and argued that it was right to try to replace mutual assured destruction by a system that promised mutual assured survival. The president's personal popularity was a major factor in his reelection, but his policies were also popular. On the domestic front, the economy had revived after a shaky start, and the tax cut was widely approved. In foreign affairs the president's bold approach had restored a sense of direction and patriotism, even though there were significant failures not only in arms control but also in the abortive peace-keeping effort in Lebanon in 1983. SDI did nothing to detract from the president's electoral appeal. Accordingly, congressional opposition was muted.
As SDI became a more contentious issue, both in arms-control negotiations and domestically in the appropriations process, a group of Republicans emerged as strong champions. Senators Wallop, Quayle, and Pete Wilson, and Representatives Kemp (N.Y.) and Jim Courter (N.J.) came to be known as the "Gang of Five." In 1986 they became convinced that the anti-SDI forces had settled on a strategy of not attacking SDI directly and vigorously but, instead, of allowing it to proceed at only a low level of support. If no decision were made during the Reagan administration to exceed the testing limits of the ABM Treaty or to schedule deployment, a new administration might kill the program altogether. Otherwise, the program might simply wither away, as momentum was lost and public enthusiasm waned. The same fear was shared by others sympathetic to SDI. SDIO's former chief scientist, Gerold Yonas, wondered if the U.S. public had the patience to support a long-term project that had no immediate payoff. "It's the ultimate Catch-22," he observed: "Congress won't provide the funding unless you are serious. And yet you can't be serious without funding. The fundamental problem is with organizational psyche. We want instant gratification. Rather than discuss early deployment, the nation should debate capability, survivability, and feasibility—those are the real issues." Experienced legislators like former president Gerald R. Ford warned that Congress would not continue to vote large amounts of money for SDI unless it could be assured that the research phase would be followed by deployment.
To counter the presumed strategy of the Democrats, congressional supporters of SDI urged the administration to adopt the "broad interpretation"
of the ABM Treaty so as to permit advanced testing and, if necessary, to consider abrogating the treaty altogether. Late in 1986 Senator Wallop and Representative Kemp wrote a letter to the president in which they noted that to defer a deployment decision for five to seven years, as originally contemplated, "would place the United States in a no-win position and the Russians in a no-lose position." In an article in the conservative National Review , Kemp argued that SDI was the most important single initiative of the Reagan administration and that it would be the key issue of the 1988 presidential campaign. He made it clear that he at least was prepared to make it the key issue in his campaign for the Republican nomination. Kemp argued that the Democrats in effect should be "smoked out" on the issue, forced to reveal their true opposition to SDI rather than be allowed to appear supportive when in fact they were attempting to starve the program and stretch it out.
Among the opponents of SDI, the leading figures were a number of Democrats, including Alan Cranston (California), J. Bennett Johnston (Louisiana), William Proxmire (Wisconsin) in the Senate, and George Brown (California) and Thomas Downy (New York) in the House. Proxmire and Johnston, along with senators Lawton Chiles (D., Fla.) and Dale Bumpers (D., Ark.), instructed members of their staff to prepare reports on the actual progress of the program. Three reports were prepared in consecutive years. The first, submitted March 17, 1986, reported on the basis of interviews with researchers that, contrary to some reports, there had been "no major breakthroughs" that promised to make deployment in the 1990s of comprehensive defenses any more feasible than it had been at the start of the project. The staff members found that the "schedule-driven" nature of the research had, in fact, aroused apprehensions among scientists at the national weapons laboratories by threatening to compromise long-term research to suit an arbitrary schedule and to promote a public-relations style of research. (SDI, said one senior Livermore scientist, was degenerating into "a series of sleazy stunts.") The results so far, they reported, had shown that the job of creating a boost-phase defense would be even harder than initially thought, and that other problems, such as the logistics of orbiting the needed hardware, were even more daunting because of the shuttle accident. In general, the report noted that although SDI continued to have broad bipartisan support as a research project, the pace at which it ought to be pursued and the direction it should take remained contentious issues.
On March 19, 1987, the three staff members submitted a second, updated
report, in response to a request from Proxmire and Johnston, who specifically asked them to examine the effort to commit the country to a "near-term" deployment. They reported that if the president were to announce such a decision, there would be nothing ready to deploy, but they noted that SDIO was indeed reorienting the program to pursue near-term deployment, possibly in the 1994–95 time frame, even without a formal presidential request. Accordingly, SDIO had cut back its directed-energy program drastically and increased the kinetic-energy weapon budget. In a number of cases, more innovative technologies were being scaled down to permit greater emphasis on the near-term option. In particular, the office was emphasizing the rapid development of the space-based kinetic kill vehicle (SBKKVs) to pursue a near-term deployment in the mid 1990s. Such a system would have a more limited capability than the one previously discussed as essential for boost-phase interception. They had been informed that SDIO had a "black" program for "developing a reference architecture for a near-term deployment of strategic defenses"—a program hidden from most members of Congress. Based on what they claimed was a careful review, the staff members estimated that the near-term system contemplated by SDIO would have an effectiveness of no more than 16 percent against Soviet ballistic missile warheads. The system would comprise SBKKVs—since renamed space-based interceptors (SBI)—and ground-based ERIS missiles. Again they reported that SDI researchers were extremely unhappy over the reorientation of the program toward near-term deployment. While noting again that progress had been made in the research, they found no significant breakthroughs in the effort to achieve a comprehensive defense.
After the second report was presented, the issue of adherence to the Nitze criteria became a bone of contention between the SDIO and its congressional critics, as the third Senate staff report, issued in June 1988, made abundantly clear. Formally, the Nitze criteria were endorsed by administration officials. "Within the SDI research program," a State Department report asserted, "we will judge defenses to be desirable only if they are survivable and cost-effective at the margin. … We intend to consider … the degree to which certain types of defensive systems by their very nature, encourage an adversary to try simply to overwhelm them with additional offensive forces." In congressional testimony on October 30, 1985, Lieutenant General Abrahamson also endorsed the Nitze criteria: "We will not proceed to development and deployment unless the research indicates that the defenses meet strict
criteria: Within the SDI research program, we will judge defenses to be desirable only if they are survivable and cost-effective at the margin."
To ensure that the administration would adhere to these commitments, Congress enacted them into law in 1985 in the Department of Defense Authorization Act of 1986 (P.L. 99-145), adopting an amendment introduced by Senator Proxmire. The provision spells out the meaning of the criteria and requires presidential certification of their observance as a condition for recommending deployment:
A strategic defense system developed as a consequence of research, development, test, and evaluation conducted in the Strategic Defense Initiative program may not be deployed in whole or in part unless—
Senate and House conferees agreed that the terms of the law would permit deployment of particular systems that might form parts of a future strategic defense, provided that their primary purpose was not strategic defense at the time of initial deployment. Thus, sensor satellites could be deployed for conventional surveillance purposes without assurance that the Nitze criteria were being observed.
As the SDIO sought to press ahead with plans for early deployment, however, its officials sought to broaden the meaning of the criteria and to treat them as guidelines rather than restrictions. In May 1986 Abrahamson suggested that the criteria ought not to be construed so narrowly as to defeat the larger goal of national policy:
The reason that many people, including us, were worried about cost-effective at the margin is for the fundamental principle: we are trying to get the Russians to modify their behavior. … There may be many reasons for wanting to make a positive judgment that we can or cannot go forward. And it shouldn't be our criteria; it should be our best judgment about what will produce the best results for our nation both in terms of Soviet behavior and our capability. … [The Nitze standard] shouldn't be defined so narrowly as to preclude a deployment that would be sound for other reasons.
The 1986 SDIO annual report ignored the Nitze criteria altogether and instead laid down four different criteria, much easier to meet, that would justify deployment:
Potential role in U.S. strategy
Deterrent to surprise attack and enemy escalation
Contribution to our arms control objectives
In lieu of cost-effectiveness at the margin, the report asserted that "affordability" ought to be the economic standard. By this measure, the trade-off between the comparative cost of U.S. defenses and Soviet countermeasures could simply be ignored. When SDIO was criticized in Congress for failing to maintain the second of the Nitze criteria, its rebuttal came in a May 1987 report. Here the agency restated its adherence to the criterion but sought to diminish its significance as a basis for a deployment decision by observing that it is "much more than an economic concept." As the Senate staff report noted, this formulation was a rather obvious effort on the part of the organization to gain some maneuvering room. Nevertheless, it could not escape the requirement laid down by Congress that in order to request any deployment of strategic defenses, the president must certify that both of the Nitze criteria have been met.
The Senate report reaffirmed an earlier finding that SDIO had altered the program's original mandate: "The goal of completing the research by the early 1990s to determine if comprehensive ballistic missile defenses were feasible has evolved into making a decision by the early 1990s as to whether a 'thin' ballistic missile system embodied in Phase I is feasible." The report charged that contrary to the agency's claim that programs earmarked for Phase I deployment would receive only 14 percent of the FY1989 budget request, these programs would actually be consuming 50 percent of the budget, if relevant program elements carrying other designations were counted. The report contended that the agency was sacrificing long-term research projects to promote near-term candidates for deployment. Furthermore, although SDIO officials had advised Congress that the costs of the contemplated Phase I deployment would be between $40 to $100 billion or more, the SDIO's own figures indicated that life-cycle costs for Phase I would be as high as $171 billion—an estimate virtually identical to the one arrived at in the
Marshall Institute study, whose authors claimed to be relying on SDIO calculations.
The Senate report found that the proposed deployment could not be justified either on technological grounds or on grounds of survivability. The decision to press for early deployment—or, as the SDIO preferred, "phased deployment"—was not made because of technological breakthroughs: "The brightness proposed for a prototype chemical laser [under consideration for Phase I deployment] is exactly that described in the Fletcher report as 'not worthy of early deployment.'" As to survivability, the report noted that even proponents of the initiative worry that the large satellites contemplated as weapons carriers would be extremely vulnerable—"the aircraft carriers of space."
Both the early-deployment issue and the interpretation of the ABM Treaty came in for a great deal of attention in the winter and spring of 1987. On March 11 Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R., Kan.), along with senators Quayle, Wallop, and Wilson, wrote to Weinberger advising him that he must submit a report on near-term applications of SDI or find funding "much more difficult." This request was formally mandated in the 1987 Defense Authorization bill. One Democrat, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D., S.C.), joined the Republicans in criticizing his fellow Democrats who called for a compromise on the ABM Treaty to permit a strategic-arms-control agreement with the Soviets. To compromise on the treaty, he argued, is to compromise and end SDI.
The major development in Congress, however, was the decision of Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to challenge the new interpretation of the ABM treaty. Nunn had become the Democrats' bellwether on defense, along with Les Aspin (D., Wis.) in the House. A political centrist, he had been known for supporting most of the Reagan strategic-modernization efforts, concentrating on examining the particulars and the implementation of the program. In March of 1987 he took to the floor of the Senate to attack the administration's effort to reinterpret the ABM Treaty, arguing that when the Senate ratified the treaty, it did so on the understanding that contrary to the administration's reinterpretation, testing in space was prohibited. For the administration now to reinterpret the treaty would therefore provoke a "constitutional confrontation" with Congress. The administration, said Nunn, was "wrong in its analysis of the Senate ratification debate, wrong in its analysis of subsequent practice … and wrong in its analysis of the negotiating record itself." Nunn castigated the State Department's legal advisor, Judge Sofaer, for not conducting a rigorous
study of the ratification process, and Sofaer subsequently conceded that Nunn was correct in this aspect of his complaint, but blamed the failure on inexperienced staff members. After examining the record of the negotiations, Nunn concluded that although there were ambiguities in the negotiating record, these were not as important with respect to the interpretive issues as either the treaty itself or the interpretation of the treaty by both U.S. and Soviet officials and that both the United States and the Soviet Union had, in fact, adopted the view that the treaty banned the development of space-based systems. Nunn also pointed out that the space-based kinetic kill vehicles contemplated for early deployment could not be deployed within the terms of the treaty because they would include a mobile system incorporating technology not in use when the treaty was signed.
A new phalanx of opposition to early deployment and the broad interpretation coalesced around Nunn, including Johnston, Proxmire, Carl Levin (D., Mich.), and Paul Simon (D., Ill.). Budget resolutions were introduced in both the House and Senate stipulating that funding for SDI be made conditional on adherence to the traditional interpretation of the ABM Treaty. In the Senate, thirty-four Republicans signed a letter urging the president to veto any such provision—enough to sustain a veto. The Democrats rejoined that in the event Reagan decided to veto and the veto was sustained, they would move to cut funding in retaliation. Eventually a tacit understanding was reached and a confrontation was avoided.
These stirrings on Capitol Hill were not the result only of concern over SDI. They also reflected a desire on the part of many lawmakers to play a more active role in defense policy. This interest had been building for some time. Until the Vietnam War, Congress generally was content to accept a more passive role in defense and foreign policy. From World War II to Vietnam, as Edward Weisband observes, presidents were "formulating bold and forward-looking policies for the nation while an unimaginative Congress appeared to be hindering those efforts and defending special interests." Many came to believe, even on Capitol Hill, that Congress was too decentralized and that individual members were too independent and too parochial for the legislature to play more of a role in formulating foreign policy—a role that was in any case assigned by the Constitution primarily to the executive. In 1973, however, Congress passed the War Powers Act sharply limiting the power of the executive to commit troops to battle. In 1974–75 it conducted a review of intelligence activities, which led to legislation affecting covert actions.
From 1974 to 1978 it prohibited military sales to Turkey over the objections of the Carter administration. In 1979 congressional opposition contributed to President Carter's decision not to submit the SALT II Treaty for ratification. In the Reagan administration, congressional opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia compelled the president to undertake an extraordinary lobbying effort.
Well before the advent of the Reagan administration, Congress's increasing activism in foreign policy led a number of observers to predict that Congress would be a force to be reckoned with in this area, and their predictions have been amply borne out. Thus, in 1976 Graham Allison and Peter Szanton observed that "congressional involvement will make the largest single difference between foreign policy making in the last quarter century, and that of preceding decades." In terms of the scrutiny of the defense budget alone, the change has been dramatic. Congressional staffs have grown larger, and the number of hours devoted to hearings has also increased substantially. The use of staffs to investigate and requests for OTA to prepare reports on SDI gave the Senate the information it needed to review the program in detail. The decision to legislate a ban on testing ASATs against objects in space reflected the confidence gained by Congress and represented an extraordinary departure from previous congressional procedure. This precedent was followed by attempts to require executive adherence to the ABM Treaty.
How far Congress will go in asserting its role in foreign policy will depend on how successful presidents are in asserting leadership. If presidents can achieve arms-control agreements, they will certainly steal Congress's thunder. Even a president who does not favor arms control is in a position to rally national sentiment behind programs like SDI by arguing that the Soviets have prevented agreement, and that to inhibit any of these programs is, as Reagan put it in a State of the Union address, to enact Gorbachev's wishes into law.