Congressional Support of the President: A Comparison of Foreign, Defense, and Domestic Policy Decision Making during and after the Cold War

By Prins, Brandon C.; Marshall, Bryan W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Congressional Support of the President: A Comparison of Foreign, Defense, and Domestic Policy Decision Making during and after the Cold War


Prins, Brandon C., Marshall, Bryan W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


With the end of the cold war, it seems unlikely that a broad domestic consensus will arise concerning the role of the United States in the newly emerging international order. Charles Kegley (1993), for instance, believed that the end of the cold war has changed "all the answers and all the questions" (p. 141), and cold war icon Paul Nitze (1999) saw a new international system that offers "less direct traditional security threats to the United States" (p. 3). Coupled with this less dangerous international environment, there appears to be no clear agreement among policy makers and foreign policy elites regarding U.S. foreign policy priorities. As a consequence, congressional leaders and the rank and file have in recent years increasingly asserted their ideological and partisan preferences. Recently, in fact, the House Republicans embarrassed the Clinton administration by denying the president majority support for the air war against Yugoslavia. (1) And in the Senate, the Republicans single-handedly defeated the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) of the Armed Services Committee suggested that the vote sent a crystal-clear message to the White House, equating it with a "two-by-four to the side of the head" (Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, December 4, 1999, 2916).

Clearly today--regardless of partisan affiliation--there are few on Capitol Hill that view national security and foreign affairs as solely falling under the jurisdiction of the executive. With the increasing overlap of foreign and domestic policy, high politics issues no longer command the attention they used to (Lindsay 1993). Indeed, the electoral incentives facing members of Congress in the area of foreign policy have shifted considerably over time (Lindsay 1994). Issues of trade, international finance, and immigration now dominate many important subcommittee and full committee hearings. House members may increasingly challenge international programs with an eye on parochial interests rather than on a broader strategic vision. Congressional assertiveness has even led President Clinton to publicly lament the end of the cold war. "Gosh, I miss the Cold War," he exclaimed in 1993 (quoted in Jentleson 1997).

We address two interrelated issues regarding congressional-executive relations. One question we seek to answer is, to what extent can internal factors (e.g., institutional context) as opposed to the external or systemic political context explain over time variation in congressional bipartisan support of the president in the international arena? Second, by focusing on internal and external factors, we seek to draw a distinction between the relevance of the two-presidencies and the resurgent Congress perspectives for explaining congressional bipartisanship in international affairs. Both of these theoretical views offer different explanations for congressional support of the president. The former suggests that the president dominates foreign policy and can garner congressional support due to strategic concerns of the cold war environment, information advantages, and greater institutional powers and personal investment. In contrast, the latter view of the resurgent Congress focuses on the importance of congress-centered features like the role of committees and political parties and how these features affect interbranch relations (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Meernik 1993; Rohde 1994; Smith 1994). Binder (1999) also demonstrated that intrabranch characteristics like the degree of preference overlap between political parties may be as important for understanding policy making as features of interbranch relations. Certainly, the resurgent Congress perspective suggests that the congressional reforms and the conditions that led to them represent a significant change in the way that Congress and the president conduct the business of foreign policy making.

Most analyses investigating congressional-executive relations combine foreign and defense policy issues and treat them as one in the same (Fleisher et al. …

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Congressional Support of the President: A Comparison of Foreign, Defense, and Domestic Policy Decision Making during and after the Cold War
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