Reasserting Congress’ Foreign Policy Agency

We are in a period of treacherously unchecked executive foreign policy. The current administration’s erraticism and inconsistency have sown major doubts abroad — across 37 nations, a median of 22 percent of people have confidence in President Trump to do the right thing internationally. As the administration ranges wildly through empty threats, oscillating policies, and the intentional undermining of multilateral institutions, U.S. consistency and credibility are reduced to four-year terms.

Meanwhile, U.S. military involvement, predicated on two archaic authorizations of force, continues. Made for a different conflict and moment, the authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) have been stretched past their limits to justify far-flung engagements. It is time for Congress to reassert itself as a check on the executive and cease its abdication of responsibility. Using its constitutional powers of oversight, legislation, and appropriation, Congress can reign in endless war, provide consistency to U.S. policy, and appropriately constrain a reckless executive.

The Constitution is sparse in its allocation of foreign policy power, and there are relatively few relevant Supreme Court cases. The Constitution makes the president the commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy and gives Congress the power to raise and support these armed forces, declare war, and ratify treaties. The Supreme Court has weighed in mainly to provide vague bookends to the president’s exercise of foreign policy power. This ambiguity has fueled prolonged debates over each branch’s proper role. As American global influence has grown, the commander-in-chief’s powers have burgeoned, particularly during wartime and when concerning international diplomacy.

Mounting public opposition to the Vietnam War led to a major turning point. In 1966, Chairman William Fulbright and his Senate Committee on Foreign Relations interrogated the Johnson administration’s execution of the war in Vietnam, fielding a range of eclectic expert testimonies and doggedly questioning a number of administration officials. The “Fulbright Hearings” seized the attention of the American public and proved to be determinative on popular opinion; approval for the President’s handling of the war dropped from 63 percent to 49 percent in a matter of weeks.

Later, in 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (WPR), a check on the president requiring notification to Congress and its authorization when deploying U.S. troops abroad. This was a pivotal moment for congressional agency, representative of public distrust in the executive and its unchecked foreign involvements.

Yet Congress has backslid since. After 9/11, it rushed to pass S.J. Res. 23 and H.J. Res. 114, two AUMFs allowing President Bush to use force against the perpetrators of the attacks and on the ground in Iraq, respectively. These AUMFs have justified nearly two decades of military entanglement across a vast geopolitical theater animated by adversaries like ISIS that did not even exist at the time of their passage. The president’s commander-in-chief powers have only continued to balloon. Since the passage of the WPR, every president has contended that it unconstitutionally restrains their executive authority, and the vast majority of legal attempts by members of Congress to enforce WPR compliance have been passed on by the courts.

Today we face levels of public disillusionment and war fatigue reminiscent of the Vietnam era. Six in ten Americans do not find the president “honest and trustworthy,” and the majority do not trust him to conduct global affairs as much as they do the likes of Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe, and other foreign heads of state. It is Congress’ duty to check the executive, especially in an uncertain era of shifting global threats in which an unmoored executive, empowered by emaciated congressional assertiveness, threatens U.S. national security. Congress can seize upon its constitutional mandate and provide desperately needed stability to U.S. foreign policy. As Madeleine Albright has said, “It is an Article I moment, and Congress must measure up.”

First, the AUMFs must be repealed or revised. Attempts to do so in 2017 in both chambers were quietly killed and have not been resuscitated since. Inaction here for fear of political friction threatens the balance of power between co-equal branches and sets a dangerous precedent of legislatively untethered military conflict. Congress’ greatest strength is legislative, and here there is promising progress. H.R.3364 (CAATSA), put into effect in August 2017, included not only deep sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea, but provisions for congressional oversight of their implementation.

Despite the president’s refusal to enforce the CAATSA sanctions, the framework is a good one, and the bill’s basic structure should be applied to future foreign policy legislation. There have also been signs of an increasing willingness among congressional Republicans to assert independence from the president on matters of foreign policy, leading to encouraging bipartisan action on issues like Yemen and Syria.

Additionally, Congress maintains substantial appropriation powers, both in regards to the military — which it must renew funding for every two years — and to the spending of the federal government. It should attach conditions to its spending bills to bind the executive and consciously direct foreign policy expenditures. For inspiration, there is the recent passage of House legislation intended to restrict the funds that President Trump might use to withdraw the U.S. from NATO, as well as the introduction of a pair of bipartisan bills that would restrict Pentagon funds from being used to reduce troop levels in Syria and South Korea.

The latter legislation further stipulates that, in order to pursue troop withdrawal, the administration must provide express reassurance to Congress that the actions would not threaten U.S. national security and that regional allies had been properly informed. All are sterling examples of Congress intentionally utilizing its appropriation powers in order to demand transparency and deliberation from the executive. This spirit of accountability through conditionality and bipartisan assertiveness should be encouraged to flourish.

Finally, Congress must wield its power of oversight. Public hearings and open debate are vital tools in a transparent democracy. Congress should channel Senator Fulbright and seek diverse perspectives and difficult answers through an open process. Where the executive is occupied with the urgency of day-to-day events, Congress can provide a reasoned, measured, investigative approach to issues of national security. Where an administration might be absorbed in crisis management, Congress can be cautious, deliberative, and transparent. Its constitutional mandate demands nothing less. Abdication leaves an unchecked executive out of touch with the people, and Congress is our country’s best recourse for demanding accountability and mobilizing the public’s will.

Lastly, I am urging Congress to accentuate, rather than eclipse, executive leverage over foreign policy. Many argue that Congress is too bulky to direct foreign policy and that an energetic, adaptive executive should have control over international relations. While Congress can certainly be dysfunctional, it is also the people’s democratic bastion and must assert its voice in times as vital as these.

Nor are these proposals panacean. The global stage is complex, and presidents should retain substantial final authority over a range of issues. But so long as they are also threatening U.S. alliances and credibility abroad, the path ahead is clear: Congress must do more.



Categories: Domestic Affairs

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