President, Congress Need Dialogue

By Lee H. Hamilton. Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. | The Christian Science Monitor, January 21, 1993 | Go to article overview

President, Congress Need Dialogue


Lee H. Hamilton. Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs., The Christian Science Monitor


ON Jan. 20, for the first time in 12 years, both the White House and Congress will be under the control of the same party. The new president has promised to focus his attention on solving America's domestic problems. Yet the world will not stand still. It is clear that the next administration will need to devote considerable attention to foreign policy.

The foreign-policy roles of Congress and the president are not abstract issues for legal scholars. They are practical considerations essential to the making of good foreign policy and the effective function of government. The foreign policy of the United States clearly works best when the president and Congress work together.

The president is the chief architect of American foreign policy. Under the Constitution, he is the commander-in-chief. He has considerable authority to pursue the policies he chooses. The unity of the executive branch, its control of information, and the national security demands of the cold war gave - and still give - the president an unassailable preeminence in the making of foreign policy. Nevertheless, there are two important limits on a president's ability to act in foreign affairs - his time and the Congress.

With respect to time, the president can only focus on a few foreign-policy issues. The decision as to which issues to focus upon is perhaps the president's most important one. That decision will determine his foreign-policy priorities and agenda.

With respect to Congress, the Constitution enumerates several powers. Congress is instructed to provide for the common defense, and it has the power to declare war. Congress has great influence over foreign policy because of its vast - but not total - control over the purse.

There are certain things Congress cannot do. It cannot conduct diplomacy. Diplomacy requires speed, flexibility, tact, secrecy, expertise, sustained interest, and strong leadership.

Congress brings other strengths to the making of foreign policy. It is a deliberative body. It is more accessible and serves several functions: It can help prevent error, provide new proposals, give all parties a voice, educate public opinion, and win public support for US foreign policy. A foreign policy cannot be sustained for the long haul without the support of the American people, and congressional backing is perhaps the most important test of that public support.

Consultation is the key to the president's relations with Congress. It has often been too little, too late. It has often meant notification of an action taken or about to be taken. Consultation over the last 12 years has rarely meant a genuine dialogue of seeking the views of Congress prior to the president making a decision or taking an action.

Inadequate consultation frustrates members of Congress because it reduces their opportunity to influence policymaking. It can lead to unnecessary conflict, additional congressional foreign-policy initiatives at variance with the executive branch, and attempts by the Congress to micro-manage programs and control policy implementation. …

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