Skip to main content

Congress and the Navy: Forty Years of Dysfunction

Bryan McGrath

Paul E. Pedisich, Congress Buys a Navy: Politics, Economics, and the Rise of American Naval Power, 1881-1921 (Naval Institute Press, 2016)

How large should the fleet be? What capabilities should the prevailing fleet architecture reflect? What is the Navy’s role in national defense? To what extent should parochial, political concerns stand in the way of national objectives?

These questions dominate the atmosphere surrounding President-elect Donald Trump’s stated desire to grow the Navy from its current size of 273 ships to an eventual strength of 350. Yet they are not new questions, as Paul E. Pedisich’s wonderfully written new book, Congress Buys a Navy, ably demonstrates. In a meticulously researched and readable work, Pedisich recounts how 20 meddlesome Congresses over 40 years managed the growth of a Navy that eventually came to reflect the rising status of a world power. This growth came despite a lack of consistent effort by the executive branch to link fleet size and capability to coherent strategy and Congress’ purposeful hobbling of organizational change designed to make the Navy more efficient. As with all good works of history, there are lessons here for the future, especially for those who will try to implement Trump’s plan for a larger Navy.

Organizational Inefficiency

If you think today’s Department of Defense and Navy are hopelessly siloed, the post-Civil War organization of the Department of the Navy will boggle your mind. It was divided into eight independent bureaus — each with its own separate congressional appropriation — that confounded attempts to bring rigor and efficiency to the function of the department. These bureaus (Construction and Repairs, Equipment and Recruiting, Steam Engineering, Ordnance, Yards and Docks, Provisions and Clothing, Medicine and Surgery, and Navigation) were headed by senior naval officers. They were most often selected for the post by powerful members of Congress with interests in that bureau’s portfolio.

Each of the eight congressionally confirmed bureau directors reported to the secretary of the N avy, but prepared and submitted separate budgets to the requisite committees in Congress, all the while fiercely protecting their own bureaucratic turf against encroachment by other bureaus supported by their separate congressional cronies. Additionally, tribal infighting was rampant among the bureau directors, with the line officers (operators) in charge of Navigation, Yards and Docks, and Ordnance often clashing with the staff officers charged with heading Steam Engineering and Medicine and Surgery. This rivalry between operators and engineers was particularly important as the Navy moved from sail to steam during this period, with steam engineers increasingly clamoring for both authority and sea-going command slots in the face of an officer corps dominated by older officers raised in the age of sail.

This system of independent bureaus was the subject of numerous attempts at reorganization throughout the period, each of which was stymied by congressional resistance. Some Navy secretaries were more successful than others in managing this unwieldy arrangement, but Congress clearly preferred to protect its institutional interests despite the attendant inefficiency. Pedisich skillfully describes the genesis of each reorganization — its form, supporters, and detractors — to the point that a modern, rational reader would likely believe that such changes would surely be adopted. Yet time and again, Congress simply ignored them.

Fleet Architecture Debates

Just as the modern Navy wrestles with what its future fleet architecture should look like, so did the Navy of the late 19th century, albeit without the benefit of think tanks, federally funded research and development corporations, and a Navy staff. Pedisich tells the fascinating story of these debates in which a new generation of naval innovators, including Stephen B. Luce and Alfred Thayer Mahan, argued for moving from a coastal defense and commerce raiding fleet (guerre de course) to a fleet capable of contending with the great fleets of Europe and South America (guerre d’esqadre). Most often, the counterparties to these innovators were members of Congress content with a more modest, defensive fleet built in public shipyards where patronage jobs under their control were the rule.

Little progress was made by the innovators in the early years of the period under study, but by the time of the first McKinley administration (1897-1901), the threat of war with Spain led to a tipping point at which armored battleships capable of fleet combat were regularly authorized, and the nation’s naval aspirations became global. It would be generous to a fault to say that this strategic shift in fleet architecture was the result of strategy and deliberation, but to the extent that there was any real thought, it occurred largely within the senior officer community of the Navy and was accelerated by the demands of world events.

Role of the Executive

If I have a quibble with Pedisich’s work, it is the degree to which he minimizes the role of the executive branch in the growth of the Navy in the period under study. He writes:

This book’s exposition of naval developments shows that the role of Congress in building the Navy continued to supersede the rising primacy of presidents and their cabinets.

Two paragraphs later, he insists, “Notwithstanding credit traditionally given to presidents and naval leaders, Congress itself built an ad hoc Navy and controlled its administration.” Without knowing the author’s mind, it seems the second passage is designed to undercut the adoration of naval saints Alfred (Thayer Mahan) and Theodore (Roosevelt), each of whom tend to be cited as builders of the Navy of this period.

The title of the book, Congress Buys a Navy, is both an assertion and an unavoidable Constitutional fact. Pedisich takes these four decades (1881-1921) and applies a microscope to them, essentially following the “serve and volley” of successive secretaries of the navy proposing an annual building program (often cited in the president’s annual statement to Congress), followed by the Congress appropriating funds for what it wished. There were varying degrees of overlap in what was sought and what was provided, but it has ever been thus. Put another way, Congress has always bought the Navy. While there have been periods in our history in which Congress has been more or less important to the process, the basic formula of “the executive proposes, the legislative disposes” was no different in this period than any other.

When one reaches the end of this excellent book, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the single greatest impediment to the growth and progress of the Navy in this period was the legislative branch and its parochial interests. To the extent that progress in both size and fleet architecture was made, the presidencies of McKinley, Roosevelt, and Wilson (and the realities of war and America’s growing war in the world) and their active interest in naval affairs (relative to their contemporaries) provided the main energy. That Congress added onto increases proposed by these presidents does not shift sole or even primary credit to Congress for the growth that occurred.

Lessons for the Trump Administration

When it comes to growing the Navy, the president must lead. Congress is not optimized for determining fleet architecture, making strategy, or creating compelling national narratives. These functions reside mainly in the executive branch, and a Navy will not grow without them.

A wise president (and secretary of the navy) seeks a partnership with the Congress and works closely with it to implement his naval program. Again, to the extent that there was change during this period, it came as the result of executive energy applied to deeply fostered relationships among the various players in both branches. These relationships must be nurtured.

The next administration should ensure that it harnesses world events and pieces together a compelling narrative for why the American people should part with more of their hard-earned dollars to increase the size of the Navy. McKinley, Roosevelt, and Wilson all used the bully pulpit to argue for a larger Navy from narratives appropriate to their view of America’s role in the world and the threats as they saw them. War with Spain and the coming of World War I provided the grist for these narratives. Three presidents made the most of it. The Trump team should begin to make Americans aware of rising great power contention and the degree to which freedom of the seas underpins both our security and our prosperity.

Related Articles

Is Lincoln Speaking to Us?

John P. Walters

John Walters discusses the applicability of Lincoln's lessons on tyrants to China's Xi and Russia's Putin...

Continue Reading

Counterbalance | Ep. 46: China’s Dominance of Commercial Maritime Industry Should Serve as a Warning

Michael Roberts & Michael Doran

Michael Doran hosts Hudson Institute Adjunct Fellow, Michael Roberts, to dig into the economics, supply chains, and strategies of the global commercia...

Continue Reading

Robotic Ships and the Future of the Navy's Fleet

Bryan Clark

Bryan Clark appears on Government Matters to discuss RIMPAC 2022 and unmanned surface vessel strategy...

Watch Now