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Reclaiming Responsibility: A Call for Congressional Accountability in U.S. Foreign Policy

Reclaiming Responsibility: A Call for Congressional Accountability in U.S. Foreign Policy

For years, I have argued that America’s legislative branch has failed to live up to its obligations in guiding U.S. foreign policy. Trends dating back before the turn of the millennium reveal that the Legislative branch has spent an increasingly small amount of time discussing and researching important foreign policy questions. Beyond that, when important foreign policy topics are discussed, individual legislators are increasingly likely to grandstand or fundraise instead of work towards policy solutions for major issues. 

For most of my life, this dereliction of duty has resulted in American involvement in unguided and near-unending conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa. Two pieces of legislation (the 2001 and 2002 Authorization(s) for the Use of Military Force) passed the House and Senate in the turbulent months following the September 11th terror attacks. Those two bills combined to serve as justification for roughly two decades of continued fighting across almost 80 nations, resulting in 8,000,000,000,000 dollars in expenses, over 7,000 American casualties alongside 230,000 civilian casualties. Most all, including President Obama when he unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to vote on military action in Syria, agree that many of the conflicts funded through the AUMFs extend well beyond the legeslation’s original intent. 

As a consequence of making the  purposeful choice to remain on the foreign policy sidelines, the members of the House and Senate ignore the combined wisdom of their 535 duly elected members in favor of the President and their small band of advisors. This is an obvious mistake. 

In response to this embarrassing state of affairs, and before the Biden administration’s top-down withdrawal from Afghanistan, I wrote advocating that both chambers of the Legislature adopt the following rule-

Before the end of each congressional cycle, each representative must vote for or against continued funding for each of America’s ongoing military conflicts. In the event that neither branch of the legislature votes in support for continued funding for any individual conflict, funding for that conflict is assigned a sunset date one year from the day of the vote.

While the language of the proposal would likely benefit from some fine-tuning, the driving force behind the proposal -the idea that the legislative branch should be held responsible for completing its constitutionally assigned foreign policy responsibilities- remains as relevant today as it was years ago.

In the current moment, and in defiance of recent historical precedent, both chambers of the Legislature appear primed to express their views on key foreign policy issues ranging from the ongoing invasion of Ukraine to the continued tragedy taking place in Gaza. If media predictions can be believed there is sufficient support in both chambers to pass additional funding for the defense of Ukraine- so long as that funding can receive a clean vote. This support is mirrored in the general American public. Why then has no vote taken place? 

This is the case because leadership in the House of Representatives has decided to make it so. Congressional leaders are using their agenda setting authority to thwart both the will of the institutions in which they serve and the citizens that they represent. This trend is not new, nor is it the sole responsibility of the current speaker- past speakers were unwilling to bring votes to the floor during other modern military romps.  Some have suggested that this is due to electoral considerations, others have pointed to internal politics, others still have highlighted personal considerations. Few have suggested that the lack of a vote is in pursuit of sound foreign policy. 

Regardless of the reason, the fact that Congressional leaders would appropriate House rules as an excuse to ignore their constitutionally assigned responsibilities is shameful. It is, for a moment, unimportant  where we might personally stand regarding continued funding for Ukraine or the IDF, each of us has a right to know where our representatives stand on these critical questions. Current leadership in the House is working to make sure that their band is shielded from the sanitizing light of a public ballot. 

This brings me back once more to the rule I propose requiring representatives to take timely votes for or against continued funding for military missions. The original intent with the institutional rule was to push for a vote and end funding for the wars in the Middle East. Today, the rule would likely result in additional funding for the defense of Ukraine. The goal of the proposal is not inherently “more peace” or “more war” but instead “more thoughtfulness” to replace today’s willful rudderlessness. Who can argue with that?

Perhaps it should come as little surprise that as conflicts spring up in hotspots around the world and the risks begin to feel closer to home, many in the Legislature would like to have their voices heard. Perhaps it should also come as little surprise that decades of ignoring foreign policy questions has brought about conditions in which dealing with foreign policy questions is increasingly urgent. Adopting the proposed rule would both help guide the United States through today’s turbulent moment, and it would also help maintain thoughtful foreign policy moving forwards. 

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association. The views expressed here are his, and not necessarily those of the FPA.