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Congress : How Silent A Partner?


Congress : How Silent A Partner?



With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of Cold War anticommunism, U.S. foreign policy now confronts a number of uncertainties in the world at large and in the halls and committee rooms of Congress. The harsh realities of twenty-first-century world politics intruded on American consciousness on September 11, 2001, with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The vulnerability of the United States to terrorism opens a new chapter in American foreign policy. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon confronting democratic societies, but the explicitly transnational character of terrorism raises new challenges to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and the workings of our governing institutions. For many Americans, foreign policy begins at the water's edge. September 11, 2001 forever changes America's perceptions that foreign affairs is a somewhat distant, even abstract, endeavor.

For nearly the past sixty years, presidential dominance was axiomatic in the design and execution of American foreign relations. Congress was cognizant of such unfettered presidential dominance in light of its obligation to control the purse strings and to provide advice and consent. However, increasing legislative concern with the excesses of an imperial presidency, particularly notable during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, culminated in the passage of the War Powers Act (1974) that sought to constrain presidential initiatives in the area of undeclared wars. Congressional action has attempted to chip away at presidential dominance in U.S. foreign affairs. The era of undisputed presidential leadership has evolved into a more complex and fragmented process in which both Congress and the judiciary have weighed into the foreign policy making process. Increasing levels of transnational relations, and unprecedented levels of interdependence, as expressed in reliance on multinational institutions, such as NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, increase Congress's ability to participate in foreign policy at the expense of the presidency.

Lawmakers' preoccupation with domestic affairs, especially constituency concerns and business, has traditionally been the cause for episodic, at times highly selective, congressional intervention in foreign policy, often precipitated by some crisis abroad or by a widely publicized foreign policy debacle. Subsequently, Congress's attention span in foreign affairs was often brief, lacking an overall strategy, and mirroring the decentralized role contemplated by James Madison. With the emergence of the United States as the only full-service superpower, however, new challenges confront the conduct of foreign relations at both institutional and constitutional levels. Legislators increasingly challenge presidential proposals in every area of foreign policy. According to Lee Hamilton, former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, members of Congress "speak out frequently in a cacophony of conflicting voices."

In this chapter we explore the changing parameters of congressional action in foreign policy. The Constitution implicitly requires both competition and cooperation between the legislative and executive branches in this area. Historical patterns and individual attitudes have deviated between conflict and compromise. Congress and the presidency at times work as tandem institutions that need each other's support and active acquiescence to succeed. At other times they compete fiercely, such as when legislators see the executive as contemptuous and arbitrary, if Congress perceives American sovereignty threatened, or when executive officials view Congress as inefficient and intrusive. While the dominant reality is that the president has emerged as the ultimate decider, especially during armed conflict, lawmakers are finding new and creative ways to contribute to, and influence, foreign policy. The classic congressional method for exercising foreign policy prerogatives through legislation is being supplemented by an array of alternative techniques, such as Senate confirmation of ambassadorial nominees, treaty ratification, and the mobilization of ethnic interest groups in pursuit of parochial objectives. At various points, the Supreme Court has affirmed Congress's part in foreign policy making. And, greater congressional activism over the past decade is due to an increase in the number of actors attempting to influence American foreign policy, among them the rise of ethnic lobbies.



Publication Date



Prentice Hall


Upper Saddle River, NJ


Foreign relations, Law and legislation


Law | Legislation

Congress : How Silent A Partner?