Internationalism in Congress

By Meernik, James; Oldmixon, Elizabeth | Political Research Quarterly, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Internationalism in Congress


Meernik, James, Oldmixon, Elizabeth, Political Research Quarterly


This article explores the conditions under which Congress supports U.S. involvement in international affairs. While Presidents have tended to support internationalist foreign policies, Congress, pre-occupied with district and state-level concerns, has shown more reticence in this area. Probit analysis was used to study internationalist, presidential support votes taken in the House and Senate from 1948 to 1994. The results suggest that while a mix of foreign and domestic factors affects the level of congressional internationalism, domestic economic factors have the most consistent impact across chambers. When economic indicators are depressed, so too is congressional support for presidential internationalism.

The struggle between the president and the Congress over United States foreign policy has been waged over issues epochal and mundane. One debate that has coursed through all inter-institutional struggles has been over the scope of U.S. involvement in world politics. Presidents such as James Polk and Theodore Roosevelt believed that the destiny of the nation lay in its ability to assert its power on the world's stage, and they encountered congresses that were both preoccupied with matters closer to home and concerned that such adventures might corrupt the nation's ideals. Decades later, Franklin Roosevelt battled with a Congress that, prior to Pearl Harbor, believed the U.S. could wall itself off from conflicts raging all over the globe. While many members of Congress were content to let presidents assume control of American hegemony during parts of the Cold War, the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the end of the Cold War itself has produced considerable debate among legislators over how much responsibility the U.S. should take for the world's affairs and, concomitantly, whether domestic needs should take precedence over international responsibilities in the claim to scarce governmental resources.

Understanding U.S. foreign policy requires examining the propensity of Congress to support U.S. involvement in international relations. Even though a president may choose to pursue his foreign policy vision without the support of Congress, or perhaps with just partisan majorities, foreign policies developed on the basis of consensus are likely to work more effectively abroad and to enjoy greater public backing at home. To that end, this research explores the concept of "internationalism" in the context of executive/ legislative relations. What does the term mean and how is it manifested in congressional behavior? Why might observers expect Congress to be generally less internationalist than the president and therefore willing, on occasion, to attempt to limit U.S. involvement in international affairs? Having addressed these questions, several hypotheses are suggested in order to predict when the House of Representatives and the Senate will fail to support presidents in their preferences for internationalism. These hypotheses are tested on several sets of internationalist foreign policy roll-call votes in both chambers from 1948 to 1994. We examine internationalist voting on foreign aid and international organizations, as well as presidential war powers. We also analyze support lor presidents on all foreign and defense policy issues to illustrate critical differences in congressional support for presidents across issue areas.

We find that a mix of foreign and domestic considerations influences the level of congressional internationalism. However, domestic economic factors have the most consistent impact across chambers. When economic indicators are depressed, so too is legislative support for internationalism. The root cause of this finding can be traced to electoral politics. Because legislators are selected by sub national constituencies for whom domestic economic issues take precedence, they are more attentive to those forces than they are to international affairs. When the economy performs poorly, spending is perceived as a zero-sum competition between priorities. …

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