Between Congress and the President, a Power Seesaw ; Congress Mustn't Let a President Automatically Take the Lead in Foreign Crises

By Holt, Pat M. | The Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Between Congress and the President, a Power Seesaw ; Congress Mustn't Let a President Automatically Take the Lead in Foreign Crises


Holt, Pat M., The Christian Science Monitor


American involvement in Iraq appears to be an unresolvable dilemma: the United States can neither stay in nor get out. It cannot stay in because the public will not support it. It cannot get out because, after four years there, the US has wrecked the country. It would be unconscionable now simply to walk away and leave a nation of impoverished Iraqis among the ruins.

America cannot start writing a new policy on a clean slate. But what it can do is adjust the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Too much deference to the White House got the US into this predicament. A more-assertive Congress might help bring about a solution, and more important, avoid a similar situation in the future.

The Iraq war represents a constitutional failure of American government, but it was not the institutions of government that failed; it was the people who were supposed to make those institutions work. The Constitution provides for a separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. It is the separation of powers that creates the crucial checks and balancesthat enable one branch to keep another in line.

A good deal of the thinking that went into this structure was based on skepticism and distrust. From long experience, the framers of the Constitution were skeptical and distrustful of power, and they wanted to build this into the new government.

Perhaps the biggest failure with respect to Iraq was in Congress. Members were far too deferential to the White House; they failed to question President Bush's reactions to 9/11 as they were duty-bound to do. Among Republicans on Capitol Hill, there was an exaggerated sense of party loyalty to the president. Among both parties, there was an exaggerated sense of partisanship.

The party system and the separation of powers are incompatible. Parties do not work well without cohesion and discipline. The separation of powers does not work well without independence. This conflict was foreseen by the framers. In one of the Federalist papers, James Madison warns against "the pestilential influence of party animosities."

The Constitution has been called "an invitation to struggle" between the president and Congress for the control of foreign policy.

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Between Congress and the President, a Power Seesaw ; Congress Mustn't Let a President Automatically Take the Lead in Foreign Crises
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