Deference and Defiance: The Shifting Rhythms of Executive-Legislative Relations in Foreign Policy

By Lindsay, James M. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Deference and Defiance: The Shifting Rhythms of Executive-Legislative Relations in Foreign Policy


Lindsay, James M., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush contrast in many ways, perhaps no more so than in their divergent experiences in dealing with Congress on foreign policy. Clinton confronted a Congress that frequently sought to defy his initiatives and at times seemed to take glee in doing so. His list of defeats on Capitol Hill is long. Congress forced him to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia in 1994. It slashed his foreign aid requests. It refused to grant him fast-track trade negotiating authority. It forced him to accept national missile defense and regime change in Iraq as goals of U.S. foreign policy even though he and many of his advisers doubted the wisdom and practicality of both. It blocked his efforts to pay U.S. back dues to the United Nations. The Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Even when Congress backed Clinton on foreign policy, as with the dispatch of U.S. peacekeepers to Bosnia and the Senate's approval of the Chemical Weapons Convention and NATO enlargement, the victories seemed to require inordinate administration effort.

Bush's experience has been far different. Congress was eager to defer to his leadership on many foreign policy issues. It overwhelmingly authorized him to wage not one but two wars. It acceded to his decisions to leave the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and move to develop an expansive new national missile defense. It gave him most everything he requested for defense and foreign affairs spending. It embraced his request to begin the largest reorganization of the federal government in more than a century. It gave him the trade-promotion (formerly fast-track) authority it had denied Clinton. Perhaps most significant, he had all Republicans and many Democrats rushing to tell voters that they supported his national security policies.

September 11 explains Congress's shift from defiance of Clinton to deference to Bush. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon altered the American political landscape in the United States. Members of Congress who previously took pride in standing up to the White House suddenly saw the better part of good policy and good politics lying in a willingness to rally around the president.

The change that September 11 caused in executive-legislative relations was extreme but not unprecedented. The pendulum of power on foreign policy has shifted back and forth between Congress and the president many times over the course of American history. The reason for this ebb and flow does not lie in the Constitution. Its formal allocation of foreign policy powers, which gives important authorities to both Congress and the president, has not changed since it was drafted. Rather, the answer lies in politics. How aggressively Congress exercises its foreign policy powers turns on the critical questions of whether the country sees itself as threatened or secure and whether the president's policies are succeeding or failing. Simply put, times of peace and presidential missteps favor congressional defiance. Times of war and presidential success favor congressional deference.

The Constitution and Foreign Policy

Ask most Americans who makes foreign policy in the United States and their immediate answer is: the president. To a point they are right. Still, even a cursory reading of the Constitution makes clear that Congress possesses extensive foreign policy powers. Article 1, Section 8 assigns Congress the power to "provide for the common Defence," "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations," "To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas," "To declare War," "To raise and support Armies," "To provide and maintain a Navy," and "To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces." Article 2, Section 2 specifies that the Senate must give its advice and consent to all treaties and ambassadorial appointments. Congress's more general powers to appropriate all government funds and to confirm Cabinet officials provide additional means to influence foreign policy. …

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