How Rep. Gallagher Would Fix Congress and Beat China
“People should just opt into the ChinaTalk view of the world and only get their information from your podcast and your Substack!”
I went down to DC to interview Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) to discuss his own view of the larger dysfunction in Congress, his role as Chairman of the Select Committee on China, and how his background in military, intelligence, and academia shape his approach to his work. Lightly edited transcript below, or if you’d prefer, feel free to listen or watch.
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America’s Role in the World
Mike Gallagher: What am I going to say for forty minutes? You’re like an actual China expert though, I’m just a pretender…
Jordan Schneider: I know … so I’m just not going to ask you China questions! Mike Gallagher represents Wisconsin’s 8th District and is the chair of the Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the CCP…
Mike Gallagher: …colloquially known as the Select Committee on China!
Jordan Schneider: Speaking of Congress, I’m going to start you off with three quotes. We’ve got Seward [William H. Seward, US Secretary of State from 1861-1869], and Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (the former Global Times editor), and you.
Seward: “Until one visits old, oppressed, suffering Europe, only then can he appreciate his own government and realize the fearful responsibility Americans have to the nations of the whole Earth to carry successfully through the experiment that men are capable of self government.”
Hu: “McCarthy’s ouster is a symbol of the accelerated functional aging and dysfunction of the American political system.”
And you: “Good people can still do great things in our republic.”
Mike Gallagher: What is the thrust of Seward’s point? I'm not sure I completely understand.
Jordan Schneider: If America screws it up, it’s really bad for the planet.
Mike Gallagher: Yeah, I think that’s very true.
We are still the leader of the free world — though I think there’s a neo-isolationism in both parties right now that is hostile to that idea, or at least hostile to what we would have to sacrifice and pay to maintain that position.
Why Is Congress So Broken?
Jordan Schneider: But how broken is the legislative branch? And on what axes?
Mike Gallagher: As an impetuous freshman in 2018, I wrote an article in The Atlantic talking about how broken Congress was. The speaker of the House at the time, who was from Wisconsin [Paul Ryan], did not appreciate that article.
The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that the legislature is weak. It is incredibly weak.
If you read the Federalist Papers, the framers feared that the legislature would indeed become the opposite — too strong — and that it would suck everything into its impetuous vortex. They could not have foreseen a scenario in which power-hungry and ambitious members of Congress would willingly cede their constitutional authority to the executive branch. So if there is a cancer eating away at our Constitution and the body politic, it’s that: it’s Congress’s systematic surrender of power to the executive branch, which makes government less accountable.
You have unelected bureaucrats wielding powers that should be reserved for members of Congress, and I think it makes the American people more disillusioned. That is my diagnosis of the problem.
Now, what has made that possible? When the Watergate babies came in in the 1970s, they saw over-empowered and corrupt committee chairs in Congress, and so they sought — in a well-intentioned way — to clean that up. But practically, they ended up transferring a lot of power to leadership. You had the creation of the steering committee at that time, and then a series of legislations — the Emergencies Act, the Budget Empowerment and Control Act, the War Powers Resolution — which again were intended to reclaim Congressional power, but did the exact opposite.
Republicans took control in the 1990s, trying to do the same thing, but practically transfer more power to the Speaker.
Right now we’ve arrived at a moment where power in an increasingly powerless institution is concentrated at the very top, which makes members less likely to have any loyalty to the institution because they’re not rewarded for channeling their energy and ambition into their committee work. They’re rewarded for channeling it into Twitter or X, or whatever it's called now, and cable news.
We’ve turned Congress functionally into a green room for Fox News and MSNBC. To me, that is the fundamental problem in Congress right now.
Jordan Schneider: Philip Wallach plotted two axes of change over the past hundred years. You talked about one of them, which is the committee versus leadership axis.
Mike Gallagher: So he agrees with me! He wrote a whole book saying that he agrees with me…
Jordan Schneider: He has another point, which is that there’s also a kind of pendulum, which you’ve seen over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first century, of Congress investing in itself and the level of professionalization — going from having basically no staff to lots of staff in the 70s and 90s and then tighter limits on staff budgets coming out of the 90s. I’m curious to what extent you agree.
Mike Gallagher: With the caveat that I have not yet read Wallach’s book, which I would love to: though I am now married to national security in general and US-China competition in particular, my mistress remains Congressional reform, and I occasionally return to it. I think that’s true.
The best example and most recent example is in the 1990s: one of the Gingrich reforms was to get rid of the Office of Technical Assessments. We tried to revive that. We had a vote on that two years ago; it didn’t go anywhere. But that’s one example of the trend that Wallach points out.
I would offer a third axis, too — or maybe it’s a subset of one of these — which is that there’s a divide within Congress that most people don’t understand: the divide between authorizers and appropriators.
Authorizers basically tell agencies what they can and can’t do; they do policy — whereas the appropriators actually give money to the agencies to do things.
Now, functionally, most authorizers don’t authorize. We have many executive-branch agencies that are operating in the absence of an authorization, and appropriators increasingly authorize appropriations bills. So that divide — which dates back to the early 1800s when John Quincy Adams was a member — has been a source of incredible dysfunction. We combined the committees in the late 1800s and then separated them again in the 1920s (I believe).
But my view is that you need to make the Appropriations Committee subcommittees on each standing committee and then better align those committees with the executive branch agencies that they oversee. And by the way, make oversight not its own committee, but rather a subcommittee of these committees that actually do meaningful work. Then you solve the problem of members of Congress spending all their time fundraising or bashing people online because they have a productive outlet for their efforts.
Jordan Schneider: So why don’t things like this happen?
Mike Gallagher: That is a great question. If you look at the last round of serious reform, there was a super committee — Senate and House — on legislative reorganization in 1993. If you read the postmortems of it, they conclude that none of the reforms were enacted because of existing committee chairs not wanting to give up their power. It is the people that have power right now that obviously are loath to give it up.
I also think there’s another thing going on: Congress has absolved itself of responsibility. In the scenario we live in now, members of Congress can blame the executive branch or write a letter to the executive branch asking it to do something that Congress theoretically has the authority to do. It’s actually useful if you care only about getting reelected, because you can just criticize without owning anything. So we’ve gotten lazy as a legislature.
I would add one more thing.
In my own view, we’ve strayed away from the model of the citizen-legislator. That intent of the Framers where you’d serve for a season and then you’d go home is no longer the norm. Now politics has become a career, and fundraising has become the overwhelming activity in that career.
The only thing I can think of to fix that is term limits. I know people have divided views on that, but I think it would actually help.
Jordan Schneider: Big structural reform. You’re a student of the 1940s and 50s, and to do that round of strategic competition, you had lots of new organizations created in the executive branch. Over the past few years, we’ve had the Office of Strategic Capital, the CHIPS Act, the NSF’s TIP. These efforts are not nothing, but they’re not creating the CIA [as was done in 1947].
Is there the need for that level of thinking, moving stuff around, and creating new authorities? Or is that too big for the moment? Does the executive branch need that fundamental restructuring that you think Congress needs?
Mike Gallagher: I think there’s room for it. Before I chaired the China Committee for the CCP Committee, I chaired this Cyberspace Solarium Commission with Senator Angus King, who’s a great American.
We created the Office of the National Cyber Director. Authority for it is diffused across multiple federal agencies. To quote Angus King’s favorite phrase, “There’s no single throat to choke.” This would be a throat to choke that is a part of the executive office of the President, but also Senate-confirmed, so therefore accountable to Congress.
I imagine you could do that in other areas, particularly on the economic statecraft side of the equation where you have so many different players. You have Treasury, you have Commerce, you have BIS [Bureau of Industry and Security, which is part of Commerce], you have all these agencies doing their own things. Oftentimes I’m not convinced they’re on the same page, particularly not aligned with other hard power agencies.
I think one of the stories of the Trump administration was there was this persistent divide between Treasury and between Defense and NSC. There’s a similar divide in the Biden administration, though it’s along a slightly different axis.
So I think the time has come for that. One tiny little subset of that which is actually the most important is on the hard power side of the equation. The military needs to completely streamline its bureaucracy. I think it’s far past time for a hard look at Goldwater Nichols. This emphasis on jointness — though well-intentioned — that came about in the 1980s has now become a hindrance to actual effective operations. It inhibits our ability to do effective strategy and budgeting. It makes absolutely no sense.
I think that the Pentagon could actually take the lead on reimagining its own bureaucracy, eliminating waste, while also enhancing support to the war-fighter.
What Is the China Select Committee Up To?
Jordan Schneider: So on that, let me give you my little critique of the Select Committee.
Mike Gallagher: Perfect.
Jordan Schneider: My sense is that there is a power law distribution to the impact that legislation could have on strategic competition, where certain things are going to be 100 times or 1,000 times more important. We just talked about very big dreams which are probably much more difficult to accomplish than fisheries, or land purchasing, or outbound investment.
I’m curious how you think about allocating your time and attention, with the understanding that bigger stuff is harder and less likely to happen, while at the same time taking into account that these could be things that could really tip the scales over time in a way that fisheries might not?
Mike Gallagher: Sure, I think that’s a thoughtful critique. I spent a lot of time thinking about the mission we were given by the Speaker and the Minority Leader, because I do think McCarthy and Jeffries set the tone early on, and they wanted this to be a serious bipartisan effort.
I interpret it as having two main parts.
One is a pure communications function: a lot of what we do — or try to do — is to communicate to our colleagues and the American people why any of this matters. Because if people don’t understand why the CCP poses a threat, or if they think it’s a distant “over there” threat, then there will be no support for the small legislative stuff, let alone the medium legislative stuff, let alone the big picture stuff.
The second thing: in a divided government, where we [Republicans] have narrow control of the House, where nobody’s going to be advancing a super ambitious policy agenda, we want to identify where the bipartisan center of gravity is.
And so if you look at our first two policy reports — and hopefully there’ll be a third coming out soon — maybe these aren’t home runs or grand slams, but if you start to string together enough singles and doubles that’s a meaningful impact that we can make in the 118th Congress. And I feel strongly that we shouldn’t just throw up our hands and await the coming of some Messianic presidential figure who’s going to solve it out.
Now, that being said — I should disclose my bias — if you conceive of our grand strategy against China as having three lines of effort:
military competition and hard power;
economic statecraft, which is where Outbound would fall in (which, by the way, would be a big deal if we got it right — whether we can get it right is another topic);
and ideological competition, which also includes counter United Front Work.
I do think the hard-power stuff is most important. If you don’t get the fundamental balance of hard power across the Taiwan Strait correct — and more broadly in the Indo-Pacific — I think we’re going to be struggling on economic statecraft and on ideological competition.
Now, people can disagree with that — that’s just the prior I bring to this.
There is where I do think you need leadership from the executive branch. And having just given a big old defense of why Article One needs to be stronger, it pains me to admit that we need the president to empower a Secretary of Defense to actually force Congress and the Defense industrial base into rebuilding — in a once-in-a-generation style — our munitions industrial base and our stockpile of critical munitions west of the International Dateline.
Without that aggressive, energetic effort from the Sec-Def empowered by the president — à la Layman with the 600-ship Navy, à la Gates with the MRAP, who had to fight against his own Pentagon bureaucracy — it’s going to be hard for a member of Congress or a group of members of Congress to do it on their own and foist it on the executive branch, if that makes sense.
I do think that, if we can figure out the short-term policy, bipartisan wins, and the things we can do in the 118th Congress, we can use the committee next year to have that conversation: in the mid- and longer-term, what are the biggest things the country needs to do? We’re not going to be able to legislate it in this Congress, but we could start to provoke a debate and a discussion on it, or even on just the most fundamental questions that are unanswered, like, “What is our goal?”
What is our goal with respect to China? I don’t think it’s a debate that’s been had.
I don’t see that in the national security strategy, I don’t see it in the national defense strategy. I see jargon, I see a lot of happy phrases, but I don’t see an actual sense in the way that early in the old Cold War, containment was the goal. People argued over variants of containment, but at least there was a sense of the end state. We don’t have that now.
Jordan Schneider: A lot to pick up on…
Paid subscribers get access to the second half of our conversation. We discuss how Rep. Gallagher’s own background in the military, intelligence, and academia have shaped his approach China and reforming Congress — as well as how the war in Gaza legislative attention toward Taiwan.
Conceptual Complexity in Congress
Mike Gallagher: How frustrating is it for you, as who speaks the language and actually knows things, to have to entertain me as a recovering Arabist now in charge of the China portfolio?
Jordan Schneider: Okay, let’s talk about that. Having talked to a lot of recovering Arabists who are trying to say something about China, you actually have enough humility and have done enough of the homework.
There don’t seem to be that many of you. Is the scholar-soldier thing a rare breed, or do very few of them seem to end up in Congress? Am I missing them? Are they out there and they’re just all in hiding?
Mike Gallagher: I think my path was pretty circuitous, and I’m not trying to be like, “Oh, shucks, Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” as if I stumbled into Congress. I’m driven in a lot of ways. But I think it’s fair to say that — at least for the first decade of my career in the Marine Corps, and then using my GI Bill to get my PhD and working on the Hill as a staffer — I was not pursuing a political career. And to the extent I was trying to shape a political career, it was to have the warrior-scholar model in mind.
I had a lot of great mentors like HR McMaster and David Petraeus, who exemplified that. I would not have pursued my PhD were it not for them. And though I’m not advocating that one should waste time and money on a PhD, I do think it forced me to think through this stuff in a more deliberate way.
Jordan Schneider: So in your thesis, you brought up this idea…
Mike Gallagher: Not even my dissertation committee read the thesis!
Jordan Schneider: This is my job. This is what you guys all pay me for…