Through a quirk in the law, the Senate has an opportunity to review White House management of the war in Iraq - and perhaps, at the same time, to institutionalize the practice of making the president's top advisers more accountable to Congress.
Newly named "war czar" Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute cannot take over his duties until he is confirmed by the Senate. The other White House officials running the war, from national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley on down, are exempt from congressional scrutiny because they are considered "advisers" to the president - not accountable policymakers - and their jobs are not written into law. If the president had chosen a civilian, or even a military retiree, the Senate would have had no say.
But to keep his three-star rank, which administration officials seem to believe is necessary to whip the Pentagon and State Department into line, General Lute needs another Senate vote. He has been confirmed several times, most recently for his three-star post as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But any officer named to a post of "importance and responsibility" carrying three- or four-star rank must win a new vote.
The White House says that General Lute "will have the authority to identify and remedy problems by working with Cabinet secretaries and agency heads." He will be "empowered by the president" to request and receive information, people and resources from anywhere in the government.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, which will have to act on the nomination, should ask just how these special powers and authorities differ from what Condoleezza Rice had earlier and Mr. Hadley has today as national security adviser. After all, they should have been managing the war on behalf of the president.
Despite the high priority given the war effort, there have been many reports of interagency fights over who should do what and who should pay for what. General Lute's selection is an effort to reduce those kinds of disputes.
Until now, the Armed Services Committee has been able to review only the Pentagon aspects of the conflict. Now it has a window into the White House. Senators should seize this opportunity to determine why the system has been inadequate until now, and what steps General Lute plans to take to fix things.
This nomination also gives the Senate a chance to improve its oversight responsibilities by following up once General Lute has been on the job for a few months. All senior officers for the past 50 years have had to promise, as a condition of their confirmation, to return to the committee and give their "personal and professional views" when asked. Senators should insist that General Lute pledge to report on whether interagency coordination is working. This would enable Congress to receive normally unobtainable testimony from the National Security Council staff.
The Lute nomination exposes a strange anomaly in U.S. law and practice. Everyone recognizes that the president needs to be able to pick his trusted advisers and not have them subject to Senate scrutiny. But Congress has always insisted that decision-makers - those with authority to issue orders - be accountable and subject to Senate confirmation.
It is clear by now that the national security adviser is not just a coordinator of meetings when the real policymakers confer. It is just as plain that as "war czar," General Lute will have to be able to knock heads together and give orders and see that they are carried out. He isn't merely supposed to "advise" the president.
It's time for Congress to make the national security adviser a Senate-confirmable job - not to deny the president his choice of advisers, but to guarantee that those officials with real power and authority are also held accountable.
President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the bill subjecting the director of the Office of Management and Budget to Senate confirmation, but Congress overrode the veto. There is no evidence that presidential budget chiefs have given any less candid advice because they have been approved by the Senate and required to give testimony to Congress.
There is good reason to believe that putting the same requirements on the national security adviser would strengthen that office and improve congressional oversight.
Charles A. Stevenson, author of "Warriors & Politicians: U.S. Civil-Military Relations Under Stress," is writing another book about Congress at war. His e-mail is email@example.com.