Why the President Needs the Help of Congress to Make Foreign Policy

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Saturday, December 15, 2001
Once, when Harry Truman was President, someone asked him who made U.S. foreign policy. His reply was simple: "I do." 

No President today could make that claim-indeed, not since John F. Kennedy was President has foreign policy been the preserve of even a few policy-makers, let alone just one. As our country engages the world with renewed vigor and interest in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan, this is worth keeping in mind. Congress, too, is an important player in foreign affairs, a fact that might seem inconvenient at a time of crisis, but that actually benefits the country in many ways. It is worth remembering that in terms of foreign policy powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution, Congress was granted more than the President. 

The President is the chief foreign policy maker. There is no question about that. But he regularly works within the framework of policies that exist in the laws passed by Congress. When Congress and the President understand their respective roles in foreign policy and make an effort to work together, better policy will emerge. 

True, it can be difficult for a President to work with Congress. For one thing, senators and representatives as a whole tend to focus more on domestic issues, just as their constituents do, and many give limited thought to foreign affairs except when a vote is pending or a crisis breaks. It is also true that power on Capitol Hill is diffuse, and shifts with each issue. In the old days, the President could consult with Congress simply by talking to a few important congressional leaders and committee chairmen. Today, dozens of members of Congress and many congressional committees play major roles in foreign policy. Members are younger, more aggressive, better informed, more diverse, and less respectful of traditional authority. So it no longer works for the President to consult with a handful of people and assume the rest of Congress will go along. 

And let's remember that the writers of our Constitution never envisioned an entirely unfettered presidency. The President may be commander-in-chief, but it's up to Congress to declare war, make the nation's laws, and pay for whatever policies the President pursues. The President has the power to negotiate treaties, but they can't take effect unless the Senate ratifies them. Without cooperation, in other words, some of the most basic tools of foreign policy cannot be used successfully. 

And the plain truth is, no wise chief executive would want to try. To begin with, American foreign policy always has more force and punch to it when the President and Congress speak with one voice. Congress is our most representative branch of government. It best articulates the concerns of different segments of the population. When the President takes these views into consideration in formulating foreign policy, the policy that results is more likely to have strong public support. 

Though it might seem awkward to have to consult with congressional leaders, Presidents can profit from the experience. The President is quite isolated in our system of government-as Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, George Reedy, once put it, in the White House no one tells the President to go soak his head. But members of Congress do not serve at the President's favor, and that independence gives their advice added weight. The President may not like or take their advice, but he'll probably forge better policy if he considers it. 

You can see this if you look at some prominent examples of poor consultation: the Vietnam War of the 1960s and '70s, and the Contra War in Nicaragua during the 1980s. These examples stand out not simply because the White House barely consulted with Congress, but because the various Presidents and their advisers excluded congressional leaders from their discussions; they wanted to conceal information from Congress and the public. In both cases, policy was controlled by a small group of high-level officials, and few others either inside or outside the executive branch knew the full extent of our government's activities. It would be hard to argue that the country was well served by this approach. On the tough foreign policy questions the President needs help. The decisions should not be made just by one person. 

Others, beyond our shores, know this. It used to be that when prominent foreign visitors came to Washington, they'd meet the President, the secretaries of State and Defense, and perhaps the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Then they'd go home. Today, almost invariably, they also pay a visit to Capitol Hill. It's an example no President should ignore. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)