How Congress Can Take Back Foreign Policy: A Playbook for Capitol Hill

By McKeon, Brian; Tess, Caroline | Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019 | Go to article overview

How Congress Can Take Back Foreign Policy: A Playbook for Capitol Hill


McKeon, Brian, Tess, Caroline, Foreign Affairs


On January 3, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump will face a new reality: a chamber of Congress controlled by the opposition party. Confronting a hostile Democratic House of Representatives will be a rude awakening for a president who chafes at any limits on his authority. For the first two years of his presidency, Trump experienced little resistance from the Republican-controlled Congress as he sought to disrupt the established international order. Republicans largely stood by as Trump withdrew from vital international agreements, embraced autocrats while giving allies the cold shoulder, used Twitter to threaten friends and foes alike, and discarded democracy and human rights as core values of U.S. foreign policy.

His free rein is over. Now that Democrats have taken power in the House of Representatives, Congress has a chance to influence the administration's foreign policy. The Constitution gives Congress more authority over foreign affairs than most observers understand. It has the power of the purse, the power to declare war, and the power to regulate the armed forces, trade, and immigration. Congress can fund programs it supports and withhold money from those it doesn't. It can block initiatives that require legislation and use investigations to expose and curtail executive-branch wrongdoing. And it can reach out to allies and admonish adversaries.

More recently, however, Congress' ability to govern has been eroded by a variety of factors, including increased partisanship, a 24-hour news cycle made more toxic by social media, and a permanent campaign requiring ever more fundraising and the need for regular travel to home districts. Congress must now rise to the occasion in order to pursue a single overriding imperative: to defend American national interests and values from a dangerous president. To do so, Democrats will have to stay disciplined and united-and use the powers the Constitution grants them in ways they have not done in years.

CONGRESS CAN CHECK AND BALANCE-WHEN IT WANTS TO

That Republicans in Congress have done little to rein in Trump should not be surprising. Their silence as Trump has trashed long-standing party orthodoxy on trade, democracy, and nato may seem jarring. But members of Congress typically give a president of their own party substantial running room on foreign policy, especially early in an administration. Deference to Trump was also a sound political strategy for Republicans keen to avoid the wrath of the president and the party faithful who support him.

Congress has taken some steps to check Trump. In 2017, it imposed new sanctions on Russia-measures that Trump signed under protest and has been reluctant to implement. In July 2018, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution that rejected the idea that Russian law enforcement should be allowed to interrogate Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, who was accused by the Kremlin of "illegal activities." (The Kremlin provided no evidence for its accusation.) And in two successive budgets, Congress has rejected Trump's efforts to slash funding for diplomacy and international development; a bipartisan statement from the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2017 decried an "apparent doctrine of retreat" that would serve to "weaken America's standing in the world." Yet beyond these limited steps, Congress has proved unable to act.

Now, however, Democrats have won control of the House of Representatives, with its attendant committees and powers. History suggests there is a lot a determined Congress can do to stand up to a wayward president. In the 1970s, in response to overreach by President Richard Nixon, large Democratic majorities moved to rein in the so-called imperial presidency, undertaking a flurry of investigative and legislative activity. Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which sought to limit the circumstances in which the president could use military force without the consent of Congress; the Congressional Budget Act, which strengthened the ability of Congress to manage the budget process and restricted the president's ability to flout congressional funding decisions; the Arms Export Control Act, which provides an extensive congressional review process for major weapons exports, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which created a new legal structure governing electronic surveillance in the United States for national security purposes. …

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