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On the Balance of Power Between Congress and the President

On the Balance of Power Between Congress and the President


Despite the fact that the American constitution gives the legislative branch a major role in guiding the nation’s foreign policy, the executive branch has been exerting major control of foreign policy from the Cold War into the modern day. This is hardly the first moment in American history where the president has guided foreign policy, and while the challenges presented by terrorism and non-state actors might occasionally require the sort of immediate response that only the Commander and Chief can make happen, the legislative branch should reassert its influence when it comes to long term military action and preventing mission creep. Congress’s failure to live up to its constitutional responsibilities, even when specifically called upon to do so in Syria, has led to prolonged and sometimes vaguely defined wars with no end in sight.

Not only should congress work to limit the more activist (and sometimes shortsighted) impulses of the executive branch, but when congress and the president work together on foreign policy decisions the country can act more purposefully and successfully to take on a challenge. Congress played a strong role in determining how the United States entered both of the two World Wars. The legislature showed prudence in waiting to join those wars until pivotal moments, and in the aftermath of these conflicts, the United States emerged as an unquestioned global power. The Cold War brought on a new series of challenges, however, and the gridlock of Congress was considered a poor tool for dealing with non-state actors and other fast moving threats. Some of these conflicts, most notably in Vietnam, weakened America’s role and prestige in the world. Though the War Powers Act was intended to limit the president’s ability to go to war without congressional approval, that law, especially when combined with the vague Authorization to use Military Force Against Terrorists, has allowed for ongoing military action that is not subject to meaningful debate or real public accountability. There is also little doubt that it has helped bring about bad outcomes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and beyond.

The one significant modern example of the legislative branch working effectively with the president to use force comes in the Persian Gulf War. The United States acted in a coalition with many other nations, and successfully repelled Saddam Hussein’s attempt at territorial expansion in Kuwait. The congressional involvement and the international accountability that often comes with it kept the conflict relatively brief. As a consequence of these restraints on mission creep, the Persian Gulf War did not lead to the sort of regional instability that followed American military action in Iraq. The vague guidelines set out by the Authorization to use Military Force Against Terrorists are long overdue for a dramatic overhaul, as American involvement in the Syrian Civil War makes all too clear.

In addition to its role in influencing America’s military face abroad, the legislative branch has an important role to play in keeping the diplomatic service in top shape. Even notoriously bullish (ex) members of the current Trump administration understand the importance of a fully funded State Department, as General Jim Mattis once claimed that if Congress didn’t fully fund the State Department he would “need more money for ammunition.” Recent cuts to the State Department budget have resulted in serious understaffing throughout the department and a struggle to hold on to prominent people in key positions. Congress’s constitutionally designated power over America’s purse strings gives the legislative branch all of the authority it needs to ensure that the diplomatic branch of U.S. foreign policy can operate at full effectiveness even in the face of an unpredictable executive branch. This is important to the extent that it ensures that America has a steady hand guiding its public face, and offers the whole world a sense of stability and predictability.

Congress can also assert itself diplomatically by working with the executive branch to craft international treaties and work with international institutions in combination with the strength of executive branch non-treaty agreements. While the executive branch has opted out of both the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Accord, and while both of those deals are imperfect, congress has shown the capacity to play a role in determining how America works with other nations when it chooses to exert that power. Even if these efforts are sometimes in vain, they put an executive branch that might opt out of them into a more difficult position than they otherwise might be in, which again promotes global stability and solidifies the interests of established American power.

Another practice that congress could very easily take up if it wanted to place increased emphasis on foreign affairs is to more regularly hold public hearings on all sorts of foreign policy questions. While at some moments in American history congress has regularly held these sorts of meetings to hold foreign policy decision makers accountable, in recent years these meetings have been few and far between, and are often more performance art than practical when they do happen. These hearings could shine a light on any number of foreign policy questions, which could help leadership identify and respond to issues more quickly. Even if partisanship or other holdups make it hard to pass legislation through the committees that would hold these hearings, more regular hearings on foreign policy would give representatives no choice but to more carefully discuss and consider the issues at hand. If representatives are made to articulate nuanced positions on complicated issues (almost especially if there is a clear partisan divide) the news media would likely cover foreign affairs issues more closely, and from there the general public might begin to consider the issues themselves. Public discussion and debate about issues of any kind should eventually serve to raise the quality of the opinions that people express, and through that battlefield of ideas, America might come to consider new approaches on a range of issues.

Perhaps the most important reason that the legislative branch should take up a larger role in foreign policy is simply that there needs to be more discussion about foreign policy issues on all levels. To use myself as a direct example, the United States has been at war under the Authorization to use Military Force Against Terrorists for comfortably over 70% of my life, and never once have I had the opportunity to vote on that conflict in any meaningful sense. Children born after the terror attacks on 9/11 are now eligible to fight in a war that was declared before they were born (and again, have never had the opportunity to meaningfully express an opinion about). When the legislative branch fails to properly engage in foreign policy decision making, the American people lose their main source of influence for shaping how their country behaves on the world stage. This is unfortunate both because it is undemocratic, and because it leads to poor outcomes.

There is a role for the executive branch in shaping foreign policy of course, especially in the modern day. That role can be found through a holistic understanding of America’s founding documents. The executive branch should be able to use the military in the event of an emergency and to repel sudden attacks, but even in an era where much foreign policy turbulence is caused by unpredictable nonstate actors, these instances are few and far between. The legislative branch should reassert itself on matters of foreign policy on the grounds that it is the democratic way to guide a nation’s foreign policy, that congressional involvement seems to lead to better outcomes, and because engaging seriously with foreign policy issues will generate competition that will guide the best and brightest ideas for how America should behave on the world stage to the top.  

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association