Congressional Power

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Congressional Power

Robert David Johnson

Executive agents dominated the international environment into which the newly independent United States entered. Absolute monarchs ruled in Prussia, Russia, and Austria, vested with nearly absolute control of their nation's conduct in world affairs. In France, the Estates-General had no effective voice in foreign policy. And even England, despite the growth in parliamentary power following the Glorious Revolution, maintained the fiction of executive unilateralism on national security matters.

By producing a government that vested substantial foreign policy powers in an elected legislature, the American Revolution truly was revolutionary. But the complicated structure established by the Constitution provided few clear boundaries separating Congress from the president, resulting in an almost constant struggle between the two branches. Apart from this internal contest for power, a few patterns have remained constant over most of American history. First, periods of divided government (in which party or ideological gulfs separated the two branches)the 1850s, the late 1910s, the late 1960s and 1970shave produced the most spectacular clashes between Congress and the president. But the more substantial shifts in power, usually to the disadvantage of Congress, have come when one party, normally operating with effective presidential leadership, has firmly controlled both branches of government. Such was the case under Thomas Jefferson at the beginning of the 1800s, William McKinley at the end of the century, Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, and Lyndon B. Johnson during the mid-1960s. Second, because Congress has tended to feature more dissenting voices, of both the left and the right, when the legislature has exerted its influence it frequently has pushed U.S. foreign policy toward ideological extremes. Finally, the concept of congressional power has been an inherently flexible one. While the abilities to declare war and to approve treaties are the most obvious grants of foreign policy authority the legislature received, Congress has more consistently made its presence felt on international questions through other tools, especially the appropriations power.


The revolutionary era bequeathed an appropriately ambivalent record regarding the legislative role in foreign affairs. The new country's first government, the Articles of Confederation, granted all international authority in the Continental Congress. But this structure proved awkward, and on two occasions the Congress divested itself of the day-to-day conduct of diplomacy by appointing a secretary of state for foreign affairs. At the state level, too, executive power over militias rebounded to some degree as the revolutionary war proceeded. Finally, almost all who served as delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed that the Articles regime could not permanently protect the weak state from national security threats.

The convening of the Constitutional Convention thus coincided with a period of intellectual ferment regarding the proper executive-legislative balance in foreign affairs. It came as little surprise that the resulting document gave neither branch clear-cut dominance on international matters, but it seemed as if Congress would have the predominant voice in the new government's foreign policy. For instance, quite beyond the power to declare war, the legislature received the commercial powers (important given the framers' belief that economic affairs would dominate post-revolutionary international relations) and the ability to issue letters of marque (the eighteenth-century equivalent of a right to wage undeclared war). Yet legal scholarship has never developed a consensus on the precise extent of Congress's warmaking power, partly because the Constitutional Convention's Committee on Style changed the Constitution's wording from giving Congress the power to "make war" to the power to "declare war."

Beyond the warmaking issue, the question of constitutional intent grows even murkier. Several framers, notably Gouverneur Morris and James Madison, described the appropriations power as the ultimate guarantee of congressional predominance in foreign affairs. But the experience of the treaty-making clause (where, at the last minute, the framers involved the executive in the process after initially planning to grant all treaty-making power to the Senate) suggests that the intended balance between the two branches changed in the president's favor as the Constitutional Convention proceeded. Memories of the chaotic and indecisive foreign policy of the Confederation period may very well have caused the framers to reconsider congressional dominance in international affairs.

The diplomacy of the early Republic, however, featured a much weaker legislative role than even the most ardent advocates of executive authority could have anticipated. In a variety of initiatives, George Washington asserted executive primacy. His handling of the nation's first treatieswith the Indian nations and then Jay's Treaty with England (17951796)decreased the Senate's advisory capacity. His proclamation of neutrality in the wars of the French Revolution and his response to the revolt in Haiti strengthened the executive's hand in interpreting treaties already on the books. When Congress investigated Arthur St. Clair's disastrous military defeat by Indians on the Ohio frontier in November 1791, Washington established a precedent by invoking executive privilege so that he could withhold documents from Congress.

Although rhetorically committed to a strong foreign policy role for Congress, Thomas Jefferson also articulated a domestic agenda that aimed to forestall the corrupting effects of industrialization through territorial expansion and overseas commerce. When forced to choose between strict constructionism and his ideals, he consistently selected the latter. The most spectacular case was the Louisiana Purchase, but the most constitutionally significant came in the wars against the Barbary statesNorth African states whose piracy threatened Jefferson's vision of the United States carrying on an active worldwide commerce in agricultural goods. The president undertook a naval campaign without a direct declaration of war, and his policy would be cited for generations to come to justify unilateral presidential warmaking. In addition, Jefferson's effective leadership of the Republican legislative majorities allowed him to bypass a rather supine Congress on foreign policy matters. Even James Madison, who justifiably lacks a reputation as a strong president, successfully expanded executive authority. Most scholarship now downplays the significance of congressional "warhawks" such as Henry Clay and John Calhoun in forcing the president's hand to enter the War of 1812. Moreover, beyond European affairs, Madison retained primacy over policy toward the revolts in Spanish America. He consistently opposed extending diplomatic recognition to the rebellious colonies, which, because the Senate had power to confirm all ambassadors, would have involved the legislature in Latin American policy. Instead, Madison relied on private agents, unauthorized by Congress, and thus expanded executive power even further.

In contrast to such executive assertiveness, congressional attempts to establish a foothold in international affairs floundered. As Washington demonstrated, the treaty-making power did not guarantee a clear role for the Senate in making foreign policy. At the same time, the failure of House Republicans to block appropriations to implement Jay's Treaty provided the first in a series of unsuccessful attempts by the lower chamber to increase its international role. That this setback established a precedent, however, would only gradually emerge; over the next quarter century, factions within the House repeatedly challenged the constitutionality of executive predominance in foreign policy. But such initiatives, emanating from arch-Jeffersonian forces around Albert Gallatin in the 1790s, the Federalists in the early 1800s, and the small band of "Old Republicans" led by John Randolph in the 1810s, all fell well short of majority support.


Why, then, did what appeared to be a constitutional structure evenly divided between the two branches so quickly tip in favor of the executive? The legacy of the colonial and revolutionary eras played a key role, as did the increasing professionalization of U.S. foreign policy. So, too, did the national security threat posed by the wars of the French Revolution. Perhaps most important was the intimate link between international issues and the first party system, which caused most contentious foreign policy questions to be debated along partisan rather than institutional lines. Not surprisingly, therefore, the presidency of John Adams, characterized by a closely divided Congress and contentious relations between the two branches, broke relatively little new ground in terms of altering the legislative-executive relationship, at least in the long term. The last Federalist president, for example, made sure to obtain congressional approval for the technically undeclared Quasi-War with France.

The War of 1812 transformed both the international and domestic environment, and in the process it altered the nature of the legislative-executive relationship. In the international arena, the Treaty of Ghent, followed closely by the Rush-Bagot agreement demilitarizing the Great Lakes and the Adams-Onís Treaty obtaining Spanish Florida, ended any credible European threat to the country's survival. Domestically, the unity between the executive branch and a majority of the legislature did not survive the 1820s schism among the Jeffersonian Republicans. In this new context, members of Congress began using foreign policy issues to obtain political advantage over the executive. One example came in 1817 and 1818, when Henry Clay attempted to force diplomatic recognition of the Spanish-American republics through direct congressional action. Clay believed that the United States, as a state founded in revolution itself, should assist other colonies attempting to win their freedom. But the speaker of the House also realized his initiative would embarrass his chief rival for the presidency, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, and thus might work to his political benefit. Adams proved the more skillful politician, however, a trait he demonstrated again six years later when he discerned the electoral merit in a unilateral U.S. declaration opposing European recolonization in the hemisphere (the Monroe Doctrine). Partisan concerns also appeared prominently in the first major foreign policy fight between the two branches during Adams's presidency, the resolution to obtain congressional backing of his effort to send U.S. delegates to the 1826 Panama Congress. A Senate filibuster delayed the appropriations necessary to fund the delegates' mission.

These skirmishes set the stage for the period between 1844 and 1860, which featured the most clear-cut intersection of partisan, institutional, and ideological battles matching Congress against the president. By 1860, the legislature's power on foreign policy reached, arguably, its highest point in American history. Few would have predicted this outcome when the expansionist James Polk captured the presidency in 1844. Without congressional sanction, Polk ordered U.S. troops into territory disputed between the United States and Mexico, triggering a battle between armed forces of the two nations. When Congress finally did consider a declaration of war, with fighting already under way, the administration used procedural tactics to ram the measure through both houses. Polk's conduct thus exposed him to the charge of usurping legislative prerogatives, reopening dormant debates about executive authority in foreign affairs. Meanwhile, the introduction of the 1846 Wilmot Proviso (which called for forbidding slavery in any newly acquired territories) eradicated the line between international and domestic matters by clearly linking slavery and expansion. At one pole of congressional opinion, abolitionists in the House aggressively made the case against expansionism. Led by John Quincy Adams (Whig-Massachusetts) and Joshua Giddings (Whig-Ohio), they transferred their opposition to slavery at home to an attack on imperialism abroad and used the war to indict the slave power's dominance of the nation's political structures. In the process, figures like Adams and Giddings showed how voices shut out of executive branch deliberations could make themselves heard through congressional action.

Partisan gridlock accompanied this ideological polarization, blocking any hope for Polk to retain the backing that he enjoyed in 1846, when only fourteen members of the House and no senators voted against the war declaration. The changing context of foreign policy issues splintered his electoral coalition, diluting support for the president's bid to annex all of Mexico. With Polk complaining privately about Congress having paralyzed his diplomacy, his term ended with Latin American policy immobilized by the sectionalization of manifest destiny, institutional conflict between the legislative and executive branches, intense partisan attacks, and sharp disagreement between proslavery expansionists and abolitionist anti-imperialists.

In the end, a penchant for secrecy, bypassing Congress, and allowing his domestic base to atrophy undermined Polk's freedom of action. His successors, the Whig presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, discovered that a foreign policy focused on limiting U.S. expansionism through treaties with other imperial powers lacked appeal in a Congress increasingly polarized over expansionism. The first attempt of the Whigs in this regard was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, in which the United States and England agreed that neither would unilaterally construct a trans-isthmian canal; the party's second was the Tripartite Treaty of 1852, in which the United States, England, and France agreed to respect the status quo in Cuba. Furious Senate objections, from not only southerners but northern senators such as Henry Wilson, forced Secretary of State John Clayton to interpret his 1850 handiwork restrictively; similar Senate opposition prompted President Fillmore to shelve the Tripartite Treaty altogether.

In this environment, implementing a bold international agenda could not occur without stable congressional support. In meeting this requirement, the final chief executive of the period, James Buchanan, displayed a good deal of originality. Buchanan believed that, given the domestic tumult of the preceding decade, foreign powers would take him seriously only if he could prove that, in contrast to Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, and Pierce, Congress would not block his actions. The new president therefore attempted a variety of approaches to augment his positionat the legislature's expense. In 1858 he requested from Congress a resolution granting him discretionary authority to wage war against Paraguay, a procedure he later proposed expanding to all Latin American diplomatic issues. A year later, he sought to advance his most important goalannexing Cubaby urging Congress to appropriate $30 million to initiate the process. He (and his Senate critics) expected that once having spent the money, the upper chamber would not reject any future treaty bringing Cuba into the Union.

But in these and other initiatives Buchanan found himself consistently rebuffed by Senate Republicans. An ideological diverse coalition led by Republican Jacob Collamer of Vermont inflicted on the president an embarrassing defeat during initial consideration of the Paraguayan resolution. Collamer again played a leading role in attacks against the $30 million bill, and now Republicans with a higher national profile, such as New York's William Seward and New Hampshire's John Hale, joined them. This fierce opposition to the $30 million bill, for instance, attracted notice as far away as Madrid. William Preston, the minister sent by the administration to begin negotiations for the purchase of Cuba, was left to lament: "The character of the debate in Congress has gone very far to revive the hopes of the Spaniards that they will be able to retain the island, and that our discord, and the distraction of party, will render the United States powerless in any struggle." The four decades following the Treaty of Ghent thus witnessed a legislature much more willing to launch (and much more effective in sustaining) ideological and legislative challenges to executive supremacy.

After 1860, however, the changing international and domestic environment caused congressional Republicans to reconsider their earlier conviction that Congress should reign supreme in U.S. foreign policy. During the Civil War, severe divisions over both military and Latin American issues split apart the GOP caucus. As Wisconsin Republican James Doolittle joked of his New Hampshire colleague John Hale, the upper chamber's most outspoken anti-imperialist, a "long habit of continued denunciation against the Administration or the party in power for fifteen or twenty years in succession has had some effect on the habits of his mind." In addition, with their party dominating the presidency throughout the period, Republicans grew less enamored (except during Andrew Johnson's presidency) with philosophical defenses of an active congressional role in foreign policy. That several leading members of the party struggled to use the congressional committee system to oversee the conduct of the Civil War undoubtedly reinforced this disinclination.

Despite these developments, Congress retained more than enough power to block aggressive international initiatives. The willingness of Gilded Age chief executives to uphold tradition and negotiate substantial agreements with foreign powers as treaties reinforced Congress's influence. The failure of the three most ambitious of these treatiesU.S. Grant's scheme to annex the Dominican Republic in 1870, the 1884 effort to establish a U.S. protectorate over Nicaragua, and Benjamin Harrison's gambit to annex Hawaii in 1892prompted future secretary of state John Hay to compare a treaty entering the Senate with a bull going into the arena, in that neither would depart alive. Hay's comment testified to the strength of the ideologically awkward but politically potent coalition of the remaining Republican anti-imperialists, such as Carl Schurz and Charles Sumner, and most of the body's Democrats. Once again, ideological extremes exerted a disproportionate influence in Congress. Senate Democrats cared little about anti-imperialism, but they believed that increased executive authority in international affairs would establish a precedent that presidents could later use to unilaterally advance the cause of civil rights. Congress even proved capable from time to time of acting in a more positive fashion, as in 1888, when majorities in both houses passed a resolution demanding that Grover Cleveland's administration initiate a conference of Western Hemisphere nations to address trade and other economic issues.


Events at the turn of the century closed out this second era of executive-legislative relations. The political realignment generated by William McKinley's triumph in 1896 paved the way for closer partisan coordination between the executive and legislative branches (most prominently during Woodrow Wilson's presidency). As in the early years of the republic, party unity tended to dilute the strength of institutional conflicts and give the president more leeway. McKinley also employed a more active foreign policy, with the United States intervening in the Cuban-Spanish colonial war and then occupying the Philippines. The congressional response to the two conflicts provided a good demonstration of the range and limitations of the legislative role in turn-of-the-century international affairs. Regarding Cuba, consistent congressional pressure factored into McKinley's decision to declare war; at the same time, however, the Teller Amendment, which committed the United States to supporting Cuban independence, limited the president's options in 1899 and 1900. Consideration of the Treaty of Paris, under which the United States annexed the Philippines, offered a similarly ambivalent legacy. The Senate featured some of the imperialism debate's most articulate intellectual offerings. George Hoar was among the nation's most out-spoken anti-imperialists, while Albert Beveridge countered that annexation would allow the United States to enter the ranks of the world's great powers. But the ultimate approval of the treaty had less to do with rhetoric than with congressional logrolling: McKinley granted Louisiana's Democratic senators control over the state's federal patronage in exchange for their votes, which allowed the administration to reach the two-thirds total required.

In addition to the political realignment, other domestic factors influenced the congressional role in early 1900s foreign policy. Political activists in the Progressive Era, convinced of the inherently corrupt and conservative nature of Congress, championed a strong presidency as a base for reform. Meanwhile, the intellectual currents of the time envisioned the United States assuming a more active, even moralizing, international presence, a mindset that guided not only McKinley's Cuban and Filipino policies but much of his successor's agenda as well. These changes shattered the nineteenth-century balance of power between the two branches. Instead, the executive undertook frequently unsanctioned, aggressive moves, as in Theodore Roosevelt's sending troops to assist the 1903 Panamanian revolution or his establishing a U.S.-sponsored customs receivership in the Dominican Republic in 1905. Use of unilateral executive actions climaxed during the Wilson presidency, during which U.S. forces were dispatched to Mexico, Russia, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

Although the Gilded Age system thus came to an end, Congress certainly remained a restraining influence on Progressive Era presidents. The one clear executive victory on a treaty during this periodthe approval of the Treaty of Parisoccurred only because of McKinley's skillful management of Congress during both the negotiating and approval processes. McKinley's successors lacked either his political tact or luck and paid the price. In 1905, for example, Theodore Roosevelt explained that he had not submitted a treaty to implement the Dominican customs receivership lest the future Foreign Relations Committee chair Augustus Bacon, "backed by the average yahoo among the Democratic senators," block the measure to get "a little cheap reputation among ignorant people." During the presidency of William Howard Taft, the Senate not only refused to approve proposed arbitration treaties with Britain and France but also denied attempts to create protectorates over Honduras and Nicaragua. While the Senate's rejection of the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I might have served as the highest-profile example of congressional power during the Progressive Era, it was not an isolated example of the upper chamber asserting itself on international matters.


That said, the League of Nations fight represented the most significant foreign policy confrontation between Congress and the executive in the first half of the twentieth century. It is ironic that failure to obtain Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles plays such a role in Woodrow Wilson's historical legacy, because, in his first six years in office, Wilson had compiled a record at managing Congress unmatched by any chief executive since Thomas Jefferson. Using adept political skills, effective management of the Democratic caucus, and a keen ability to articulate his political vision to the public, Wilson had managed to push through Congress not one but two comprehensive reform packages. His record on foreign policy matters was slightly less stellar, but, nonetheless, given the complexity of the issues he confrontednot only the Great War but also the Mexican Revolutionhe performed impressively.

By handing control of Congress to the Republicans, however, the 1918 midterm elections elevated Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge to the dual position of Senate majority leader and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Personal and partisan animus shaded Lodge's response to Wilson. Before Wilson's arrival on the national scene, Lodge (who, like Wilson, held a Ph.D. degree) had been the nation's most prominent scholar in politics. Lodge, who matched Wilson's partisanship, also recognized that the treaty's unamended passage would benefit the Democrats politically. The senator confronted a problem, however: the League of Nations seemed popular, and opinion among his Republican colleagues was badly divided. A few Republican senators, such as William Borah and Robert La Follette, opposed entering the league under any circumstances, primarily because they believed that European imperialist powers would dominate the organization. "Mild reservationists," such as senators William Kenyon and Porter McCumber, supported the treaty with only minor changes. Most Republicans joined Lodge in classifying themselves as "strong reservationists," a vague designation that amounted to outright opposition to the league as constructed by Wilson.

The treaty reached the Senate in the spring of 1919. Lodge's performance between then and the first vote on the document in November 1919 provided a textbook example of how a congressional minority could use the institution's powers to alter U.S. foreign policy. Lodge began by convening lengthy hearings on the treaty, which gave the Republicans time to influence public opinion. But the hearings also exposed the many provisions in the Versailles Treaty in which diplomatic necessities had forced Wilson to compromise his ideals. As the summer progressed, criticism of the treaty escalated, from a wide variety of groupsethnic Americans, especially of Irish ancestry, who saw the document as a sellout to the British; radicals and anti-imperialists, who viewed the treaty as a betrayal of American ideals; and nationalists, who worried that the collective security mechanism of Article X would rob Congress of its constitutional right to declare war. As a Senate critic, Lodge did not need to propose a positive alternative; he only had to ensure that one-third plus one of the members of the Senate would vote against approval. His determination, along with Wilson's equally passionate refusal to compromise and the parliamentary tactics of the Senate irreconcilables (the outright opponents of the league), paved the way for three Senate votes in which the upper chamber rejected the Treaty of Versailles and thus U.S. membership in the League of Nations.

The defeat of the Versailles Treaty confirmed the breakdown between Woodrow Wilson and the new Republican majority. But even before the 1918 elections, relations between the two branches had deteriorated. Before the U.S. entrance into World War I, the president was subjected to consistent barbs from Senate progressives for both his Mexican and his preparedness policies. Then, in 1918, Wilson confronted the dilemma of Congress exercising a prior restraint over his response to the Bolshevik Revolution: fear of a congressional investigation blocked a scheme to supply credits to Admiral Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Kolchak's antirevolutionary forces. When Wilson attempted to bypass Congress entirely by sending troops to Russia, the body employed the ultimate sanction: its power of the purse. In 1919 a resolution introduced by Senator Hiram Johnson to cut off funding for the intervention failed on a perilously close tie vote. This demonstration of the critical spirit in Congress convinced the administration that it had no choice but to withdraw the armed forces.

The intensity of the Versailles and Russian battles heightened the importance of foreign policy pressure groups of all ideological persuasions. The pattern continued during the 1920s, especially on military and Latin American issues. As would be the case later in the century as well, such groups tended to influence Congress more than the executive. In 1926, for instance, the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service waged a highly effective lobbying campaign to prevent Senate approval of the Chemical Weapons Treaty, while anti-imperialists and peace groups helped soothe the U.S.Mexican crisis of 19261927. In turn, the greater public interest in foreign policy highlighted the ability of Congress, especially the Senate, to frame consideration of international questions, especially at a time when political reporters spent as much time covering events in the Senate as they did at the White House.

No figure made better use of this environment than William Borah. Combining his power as Foreign Relations Committee chair with his long-standing identification with the issue, Borah positioned himself as the chief interpreter of the 1929 Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war. He also launched his own venture in private diplomacy in an attempt to prevent a military conflict with Mexico. Those executive initiatives that cleared Congress during the 1920s, such as the Washington Naval Conference treaties of 19211922, further confirmed the legislature's influence: the treaties overcame strong Senate opposition largely because the Harding administration appointed two prominent senators, Henry Cabot Lodge and Oscar Underwood to the U.S. negotiating team. When Secretary of State Frank Kellogg proved less willing to involve Congress in his Latin American policyduring his tenure the United States sent marines to Nicaragua without congressional sanction and nearly severed diplomatic relations with Mexicothe legislature responded in kind: in 1929 the Senate passed an amendment authored by C. C. Dill to terminate appropriations for the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.

The Dill Amendment was the handiwork of the peace progressives, one of the most effective congressional blocs of the twentieth century. Although never more than twelve in the Senate, members of the group displayed remarkable acumen in advancing their ideological agenda. They first attracted notice in the 1910s, when senators such as Borah, La Follette, and George Norris offered an anti-imperialist, antimilitarist critique of Wilson's foreign policy. But the peace progressives made their mark in the 1920s, when they used the Senate's traditional tolerance of dissenters to influence the foreign policy of the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations. Their tactics included appropriations riders, public hearings to influence popular opinion, covert cooperation with peace groups to leak embarrassing information, and using the prestige of their positions to cement transnational alliances with like-minded groups and individuals overseas. By the end of the 1920s, U.S. policy toward Central America and the Caribbean had moved strongly in an anti-imperialist direction.

And so, as the framers anticipated, foreign policy issues remained vigorously contested between the branches. This framework continued during the first several years of Franklin Roosevelt's administration. A domestic focus made Roosevelt reluctant to spend political capital on international matters, such as the protocol for adherence to the World Courtone reason why the Senate defeated the treaty. A leading opponent of the World Court was the peace progressive senator Gerald Nye, who, like many in the group, believed that pressure from munitions makers and bankers explained Wilson's decision to bring the country into World War I. In the throes of the Great Depression, a conspiracy theory against business carried a good deal of weight, and, when Nye opened hearings on the matter in 19341935, the affair attracted national attention. Secretary of State Cordell Hull complained how the Nye Committee's dominance of discourse on neutrality issues strengthened isolationist sentiments. Indeed, as the secretary anticipated, the hearings resulted in Congress passing the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1936. Ironically, during Franklin Roosevelt's first six years as president, the most important diminution of congressional authority on foreign policy issues came with the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934, when Congress willingly surrendered its power over foreign economic policy as part of the fallout from the Smoot-Hawley tariff.

Despite differences between eras, some common patterns emerged in the congressional approach to international relations between 1789 and 1941. The Dill and Hiram Johnson resolutions, for example, showed how powerfully military appropriations bills could influence foreign affairs. The prevalence of treaties, even though the upper chamber approved 86 percent of the 726 treaties it considered between 1789 and 1926, heightened the importance of formal roll-call votes in assuring at least some senatorial presence in the conduct of foreign policy. With the (albeit important) exception of tariffs, the House of Representatives played a minor role on international questions. (During one congressional session in the 1920s, for instance, the House Foreign Affairs Committee spent a week debating a $20,000 appropriation for an international poultry show in Tulsa, which one member recalled as the committee's most important issue of the whole session.) In the Senate, meanwhile, the Foreign Relations Committee reigned supreme. The upper chamber's considerable international powers fell under the control of a relatively small foreign policy elite, composed of Foreign Relations members and the few other senatorslike the peace progressiveswho exhibited intense interest in international matters.

The international threat associated with World War II altered this alignment. Perhaps no single piece of legislation highlighted the change more than the Lend-Lease Act of 1940, which passed despite knowledge that it would lessen congressional control over foreign policy. During World War II, determined to avoid the mistakes of the Wilson administration, Roosevelt hoped to place the Senate on record supporting U.S. participation in a postwar international organization. But the president did not want Congress to play an active role in forming postwar foreign policy. He strongly opposed the so-called B2H2 resolution (abbreviated for its sponsorsSenators Harold Burton, Joseph Ball, Lister Hill, and Carl Hatch), which called for the United States to join a postwar international police force. Working with Senate leaders, the administration instead championed a vaguely worded offering that praised the work of Cordell Hull at the 1943 Moscow Conference of foreign ministers. This was the first in a series of measures in which Congress was asked to provide advance authority for future executive action. Moreover, as would occur with similar postwar resolutions, the political and international conditions under which the Senate considered the substituteafter Hull had already completed his workmade it almost impossible to oppose the bill without repudiating executive commitments.


The arrival of the Cold War further weakened the traditional levers of congressional authority. The nature of the communist threat placed the government on close to a permanent war footing, while the advent of nuclear weapons provided an immediacy lacking in any previous challenge to U.S. national security. In this new situation, a constitutional theory emerged claiming that the commander-in-chief clause bestowed an independent foreign policy power upon the executive, an argument almost never previously advanced. On the domestic front, the perceived lessons of the late 1930s bolstered the Truman administration's strategy of equating its own foreign policy principles with the concept of bipartisanship. A century and a half before, Jefferson had shown how aggressive presidential leadership and partisan unity could work to diminish congressional authority. Now, Harry Truman looked to create a party unity between executive and legislature that did not exist, with the aim of stifling congressional dissent. Faced with a Congress controlled by Republicans between 1947 and 1949, the president essentially regarded congressional attacks not as legitimate institutional challenges but as nothing more than partisanship.

Not surprisingly, then, the early Cold War is not remembered as a period of intense congressional activism in the international arena. As Arthur Vandenberg conceded during his stint as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair in the Eightieth Congress, issues seemed to reach Capitol Hill only when they had developed to a point where congressional discretion was badly restricted. Indeed, what Truman's final secretary of state, Dean Acheson, dubbed the "Vandenberg treatment"granting to the Michigan senator small, superficial concessions and a dose of public praiseaptly describes the common view of the congressional role in Truman's foreign policy.

In many ways, congressional power did diminish in the early stages of the Cold War, although this was partly becauseas with the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act fifteen years earlierthe legislature willingly surrendered its role. At times the body seemed eager to expand the president's foreign policy powers beyond even what Truman desired. Such sentiments explain the overwhelming approval of initiatives such as the National Security Act (1947), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949), and the post-1950 expansion of the defense budget. They also affected the early congressional response to the Korean War; at the time, several senior members expressly asked Truman not to involve Congress in the decision. With the combination of NSC 68the document that deemed the triumph of communism anywhere in the world a threat to U.S. national securityand the onset of the Korean War dramatically escalating the military budget, the beneficiaries of defense spending spread around the country. As a result, members of Congress who even considered opposing defense appropriations were vulnerable to the charge that they were not only subverting national security but also failing to protect the economic interests of their constituents. In the decade between the end of the Korean War and the end of John F. Kennedy's presidency, defense bills passed with an average of less than one negative vote in both chambers.

Until the Korean War began, however, the congressional response to the Cold War was considerably more complex. In 1947, even as the administration was uniting behind George Kennan's containment doctrine, Congress seriously considered three alternative approaches to world affairs. A small group of Democratic liberals supplied the most tenacious opposition to the Truman Doctrine, in which the president pledged to assist any government threatened by communist takeover. Led by Claude Pepper and Edwin Johnson, they charged that extending military assistance to undemocratic regimes in Greece and Turkey would contradict the internationalist ideals for which the United States fought World War II. To the administration's right, a sizable bloc of Republicans led by Senator William Knowland of California and Representative Walter Judd of Minnesota demanded that the administration reorient its foreign policy toward East Asia by aiding the Nationalists in China's civil war. Finally, nationalists ranging from the talented (Robert Taft of Ohio) to the unscrupulous (Pat McCarran of Nevada) questioned any initiative that would threaten U.S. sovereignty and argued that an activist foreign policy would dangerously strengthen the federal government. They instead advocated waging the Cold War through domestic measures that would crack down on communist sympathizers. This point of view enjoyed strong support in the House of Representatives, which was more subject to conservative pressures generated by the 1946 elections.


The unusual breakdown of Congress played a critical role in the early stages of the Cold War. With a shaky base of congressional support, Truman had little choice but to work with internationalist Republicans: more than flattery was at stake in Dean Acheson's attempts to woo Vandenberg and his ideological comrades, Henry Cabot Lodge II and H. Alexander Smith. The temperaments, ideologies, and inclinations of the internationalist Republicans made them players on virtually every foreign policy issue of the day. Their performance set the stage for a new way for Congress to exert influence: with the foreign policy powers of the federal government expanding at an exponential rate, members of Congress could maneuver through the resulting chaos.

From a completely different ideological perspective, other domestic forces also encouraged a congressional presence in the early Cold War. Following the elections of 1946, when Republicans captured control of both houses of Congress, more than half of the House GOP caucus petitioned for membership in the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). One of these freshmen, California congressman Richard Nixon, made a national name for himself with his activities on the committee, especially after he exposed perjury by the former State Department official Alger Hiss. With the committee championing the anticommunist cause in the House, Republican Joseph McCarthy took up the banner in the Senate. The Wisconsin senator was the rare member of Congress who could shape the national psyche, and both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations had to deal with the consequences of his actions. In the process, while the liberal internationalist and Asia-first alternatives that Congress considered during the early portions of Truman's years fell by the wayside, the nationalists in Congress flourished.

Even during the height of his power, McCarthy sponsored no important laws; he sought to affect the national debate on anticommunism but eschewed the hard work necessary to pass legislation. Measured by that standard, the most influential member of the postwar Congress was Nevada senator Pat McCarran, who was responsible for two critical pieces of Cold War legislation: the McCarran Internal Security Act (1950) and the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act (1952). McCarran's position as a Democrat willing to buck his party's leadership and his considerable contacts with the Federal Bureau of Investigation gave him clout on Capitol Hill. In addition, the ability of figures like McCarran to work around the traditional congressional structure to have an impactthe senator's power base was the Judiciary Committeeprovided a model for future congressional initiatives that challenged executive control.

In the years following Truman's decision to commit forces to the Korean conflict, Congress's role in warmaking notably declined, while the growth of executive agreements produced a similar diminution of the Senate's treaty-making power. These developments did not escape congressional notice. During the Truman administration, a group of nationalists led by Ohio's two GOP senators, John Bricker and Robert Taft, embraced the cause of congressional power. The duo argued that Truman-style internationalism would not be possible if Congress took its appropriate place as a partner of the executive on foreign policy matters.

With the election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, liberal Democrats searched for a way to use congressional power to criticize the president without being labeled soft on communism. They urged a formal, symbolic role in framing policy, with the executive conceding the principle of legislative input in exchange for Congress allowing the president freedom of action to prosecute the Cold War. Hubert Humphrey (a member of the populist Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota) candidly described this stance as a "limited dissent." Indeed, as practiced in the Eisenhower administration, it actually came to less than that: Eisenhower pioneered the tacticlater made famous with the Tonkin Gulf Resolutionof submitting blank-check resolutions authorizing vaguely defined overseas actions. The relationship between Eisenhower and congressional Democrats suggested that genuine collaboration interested neither side.

But in many ways, a focus on the balance of power between Congress and the president misses the most important element in the legislative response to the early Cold War. That instead came in an internal congressional development: the creation of the culture of a Cold War Congress. The position of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee weakened as the international issues (warmaking and approving treaties) over which it had clear jurisdiction fell into disuse. Within Congress, the committee came under challenge from the newly created Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and the Senate Armed Services Committee, which both proved less than zealous in challenging executive policies. With the expansion of the defense budget, influence especially shifted to the Armed Services Committee, which viewed itself less as an oversight body than as a defender of the Pentagon and as a gatherer of defense contracts for members' congressional districts. Other aspects of the national security state, especially the intelligence community, similarly stood beyond congressional control.


By the end of the 1950s, then, it seemed as if Congress had lost much of its de facto input into the making of U.S. foreign policy. But two major exceptions to this pattern existed: subcommittee government and the foreign aid program. In part because of its relative youth (it had been created only in 1947), the Armed Services Committee proved much less successful at resisting challenges to its authority than had been the Foreign Relations Committee before World War II. That inability to defend its turf helps explain the postwar explosion of subcommittees dealing with foreign policy issues. Joseph McCarthy was the most prominent senator to use a subcommittee (of the formerly low-profile Government Operations Committee) to advance his own foreign policy agenda, but his activities are best viewed more broadly, as part of the decentralization of power within Congress on national security matters. Overall, the number of Senate foreign policy subcommittees grew from seven in 1946 to thirty-one two decades later.

Eisenhower's second term witnessed the establishment of three particularly important subcommittees, each chaired by a contender for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. After the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, Richard Russell handed the issue over to his protégé, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who chaired the Preparedness Investigations Subcommittee. In late 1958, Senator Henry Jackson introduced a resolution mandating a study of the National Security Council's performance. The resolution was reported to the Government Operations Committeeon which Jackson, not coincidentally, servedand over the next two years, a sub-committee chaired by Jackson conducted a wide-ranging investigation of Eisenhower's foreign policy that only tangentially related to the National Security Council. From a much different ideological perspective, Hubert Humphrey's Disarmament Subcommittee, an offshoot of the Foreign Relations Committee, looked to build a case for arms control initiatives. The hearings helped pave the way for the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1961.

The decentralized committee structure gave senators interested in foreign policy questions an avenue for achieving direct influencesometimes by facilitating informal ties with members of the national bureaucracy, sometimes through hearings that sought to influence political debate, sometimes by providing a vehicle for marshaling the appropriations power. Moreover, these three subcommittees starkly contrasted with the ineffective tactics associated with the "limited dissent," showing how members of Congress couldand didinfluence national security policy even at the height of the Cold War. Until the early 1960s, the most effective congressional criticism came from the right. But that situation would soon change, since liberals would build upon the tactics pioneered by the likes of Jackson and Johnson to challenge the Cold War anticommunist consensus.

Subcommittee government also played a key role in bolstering congressional involvement in the foreign aid program. Moreover, because the Constitution required all revenue measures to originate in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber used foreign aid to enhance its foreign policy role. In another example of the power of foreign policy subcommittees, Otto Passman, the chair of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, regularly used his position to reduce the total appropriations requested by Eisenhower, and later John Kennedy, by 20 or 25 percentan effort that was aided by the program's consistent domestic unpopularity. Passman thoroughly enjoyed the effort: he informed one harried Eisenhower administration official that his sole pleasure in life was cutting the foreign aid budget.

For the early postwar period, congressional conservatives, worried about the excessive cost and the support it provided to left-of-center regimes, provided the most vociferous criticism of foreign aid. As long as these conservatives remained the only opposition, a bipartisan coalition of northern Democrats and moderate Republicans provided the votes necessary for passage. But beginning in the early 1960s, the program started coming under attack from liberals, mostly in the Senate. Democratic senators such as George McGovern, Albert Gore, Frank Church, and Ernest Gruening contended that both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had excessively employed foreign aid as a tool of the Cold War, showering dictatorial regimes with military assistance solely because of their anticommunist credentials. The senators began by offering amendments to deny foreign aid to governments that came to power through undemocratic means. They also gradually expanded their efforts to launch an attack on military aid that began to veer toward repudiating Cold War liberalism itself.

This new base of opposition developed at a critical moment, for in the early 1960s foreign aid assumed a new importance in containment policy. Kennedy's counterinsurgency theories dictated a considerable expansion in military aid expenditures. And the administration's boldest new international initiative, the Alliance for Progress, promised a multiyear U.S. commitment of economic and military assistance to Latin America. Unfortunately for John F. Kennedy, in 1963 Passman's conservatives and the Senate liberals joined forces in an awkward ideological alliance that inflicted a serious setback to the administration. In the aftermath, foreign aid bills became a favorite vehicle for policy riders on issues as diverse as human rights, expropriation of U.S. owned property, and the foreign policies of recipient regimes. The pattern of congressional deference had started to break down well before the surge of congressional activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


The Americanization of the Vietnam War thus arrived at a time when Congress as an institution was looking for new avenues to shape U.S. foreign policy. Until 1964, Congress had played a fairly minor role on Southeast Asian matters. In 1954, Eisenhower had invited legislative leaders to comment on whether the United States should use its military to rescue beleaguered French forces at Dien Bien Phu. But the president had little desire to send troops and almost certainly engaged in the charade so he would have an excuse to explain his lack of action to the French. The Kennedy years featured a more consistent level of congressional comment. Many of the same critics of foreign aidGruening, Gore, Churchalso questioned the military and economic assistance program toward the dictatorial government of Ngo Dinh Diem and called for Congress to more aggressively counter administration policy. But at no point did a sustained legislative effort on Vietnam policy emerge.

That condition changed after Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963 and military conditions in Vietnam began to deteriorate. With only one exception, Johnson accomplished his goal of keeping public attention off Vietnam until after the 1964 elections. But that exception resulted in one of the most famous pieces of legislation in the postwar Congress. In August 1964, after North Vietnamese vessels reportedly attacked U.S. forces in the Tonkin Gulf, the administration introduced a resolution granting the president authority to take all necessary measures to repel the attack. The open-ended wording disturbed some senators, but the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, assured his colleagues that Johnson would never utilize the full breadth of the authority the Tonkin Gulf Resolution granted him. Although in retrospect Fulbright's words ring hollow, at the time his assertions seemed perfectly reasonable. Eisenhower and Kennedy had introduced similar offerings to deal with specific crises, and these had not resulted in a massive commitment of U.S. troops overseas.

By mid-1965, however, the increasing numbers of U.S. troops in Vietnam prompted a more active congressional response. For the rest of Johnson's term and most of Richard Nixon's, an increasingly powerful group of Senate liberals tried to end the war through congressional action. Perhaps their most important initiative came in 1966, when Fulbright convened public hearings on Vietnam policy that attracted a national television audience to witness divisions among the foreign policy elite regarding the administration's approach to matters in Southeast Asia. Indeed, although members of Congress failed to prevent the Americanization of the Vietnam conflict, their activities did help turn U.S. opinion against the war. In the process, Fulbright became the most powerful Foreign Relations Committee chairand, perhaps, the most important congressional player on foreign policy matterssince William Borah in the 1920s.

Beyond the antiwar activities of Senate liberals were two other substantial areas of congressional involvement in 1960s foreign policy. The first centered on the wartime actions of congressional Republicans and prowar Democrats, such as Senators John Stennis (Democrat) and John Tower (Republican) and Representative Gerald Ford (Republican). Stennis and Tower were particularly significant because their extensive contacts made them the Capitol Hill voices for the military at a time when the Pentagon was often articulating its own perspective on international affairs. Second, quite apart from Vietnam, Senate liberals challenged Cold War principles elsewhere in the world. Because their dissent did not fully blossom until the United States already had tens of thousands of troops on the ground in Vietnam, Senate liberals always acted under some constraint. The full force of their perspective emerged only in their positions on newer issuessuch as Greece, where they demanded a cutoff of U.S. aid after the military coup of 1967, and Thailand, where their anti-interventionism offered a clear sense of their desired role for the United States in Southeast Asia.


For several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the most prominent of these Senate dissenters was Missouri's Stuart Symington, formerly a Cold Warrior and Harry Truman's secretary of the Air Force. Symington's break with the past symbolized the altered world of Congress in the early 1970s. The Missouri senator chaired one of the most important foreign policy subcommittees in U.S. history, one that launched inquiries of U.S. commitments in Thailand, Spain, and Laos and helped produce the 1971 National Commitments Resolution. In 1967 hearings looking into U.S. foreign arms sales, Symington offered a concrete demonstration of the link between military aid and foreign policy. In the 19681969 battle against the antiballistic missile (ABM), the first full-fledged congressional challenge to a Cold War weapons system, he showed that dissenters, who traditionally shied away from slots on the Armed Services Committee, needed detailed technical knowledge of military matters if they hoped to prevail in debates on national security policy. In his inquiry into U.S. agreements with Spain over military bases on the Iberian Peninsula, he uncovered how overseas bases, frequently obtained without congressional sanction, brought with them broader diplomatic requirements. And in the Laotian hearings, he offered a glimpse at how secrecy could obscure not only national security material but also secret wars that were occurring without legislative sanction.

In the broadest sense of the term, Symington himself was a transitional figure. His own transformation from a hard-line anticommunist to a skeptic of Cold War foreign policy helped him lead the Senate's transition into a more aggressive body on foreign policy matters. But his most significant achievement came in pioneering tactics that other liberals would use even as he himself faded from the ranks of active dissenters. Indeed, some of the highest-profile executive-legislative battles during the later Richard Nixon and early Gerald Ford administrations featured freshman liberals employing devices prominently used by Symington, such as the efforts of Iowa senators Harold Hughes and John Culver in the early 1970s. Both Hughes and Culver elected to join the Armed Services Committee rather than the Foreign Relations Committee; both cultivated allies in the military; and both used the information gleaned from those allies to undercut their opponents' credibility. Behind all of these efforts stood perhaps the most important transition point of the post-Vietnam era: the willingness of Congress to challenge executive supremacy on Department of Defense matterson policy, on specific weapons systems, and in roll-call votes.

Members of Congress were prepared to use these revived powers. Liberals in the Senate, often using foreign aid riders, expanded on the ideological alternative they first had outlined in the foreign aid revolt. First, they charged that policymakers from the Johnson and Nixon administrations had subordinated traditional American idealssuch as support for democracy, human rights, and self-determinationto the anticommunist dictates of the Cold War. Second, they charged that the national security apparatus associated with the Cold War had given the military an excessive role in the making of U.S. foreign policy. Finally, they contended that a democracy required a foreign policy of opennessand that a foreign policy of openness required a consistent congressional presence in international affairs.

This dissent produced attacks against U.S. policy toward Latin America, Asia, and Africa, regions in which, critics contended, a misapplication of containment principles had produced policies that contradicted the country's image as a champion of international reform, employed military solutions to political or social problems, and allied the United States with ideologically undesirable regimes. For example, after Augusto Pinochet's military government assumed power in Chile in 1973, Representative Donald Fraser and Senator Edward Kennedy opened hearings on Pinochet's human rights abuses. Congress then enacted a series of measures to gradually end U.S. assistance to the regime. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 provided another opportunity to act, and Thomas Eagleton pushed through the Senate an amendment cutting off foreign aid to the Ankara government. Surveying the burst of activity, one European diplomat concluded, "It isn't just the State Department or the president anymore. It's Congress now."

But the most important of these congressional efforts concerned U.S. policy toward Angola, where a small Central Intelligence Agency covert operation mushroomed in mid-1975. The operation came to the attention of Iowa senator Dick Clark, who toured Africa in the summer of 1975 and returned home convinced that respecting Angolan self-determination would atone for earlier instances in which the anticommunist mindset of the Cold War had caused the United States to abandon its traditional anti-imperialist ideals. Concerned about the ramifications of the Ford administration's actions, he introduced an amendment to the 1976 foreign aid bill to cut off all covert assistance to Angola, thus forcing a public debate on the policy. In fact, he reasoned, publicity itself formed an appropriate method of oversight. A foreign aid amendment and the subsequent congressional debate provided the perfect vehicle. A few months later, the Senate passed an amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill introduced by John Tunney immediately terminating covert assistance to the Angolan anticommunists. The two amendments represented the high point of a congressional revolt against the anticommunist ethos of the Cold War and executive authority in foreign policy.


That the amendments would not spawn ideological successors, however, was not apparent at the time. The congressional elections of 1972 and 1974 brought to Washington a sizable bloc of young Democrats for whom Vietnam rather than the postwar division of Europe provided their formative foreign policy experience. But while these Democrats shaped the congressional mentality of the era, the mid-1970s also witnessed a dramatic resurgence of the congressional right. Domestically, the social and cultural divisions of the 1960sintensified by the antigovernment sentiments spawned by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandalproduced a climate conducive to the rise of conservatism. Internationally, the conduct of the Soviet Union led a new group of intellectualsdubbed the neoconservativesto demand a more assertive U.S. foreign policy.

The sponsors of the Clark and Tunney amendments hardly expected that their passage would open up new avenues for congressional conservatives to influence foreign policy. But over the next ten years, the amendments produced a host of unintended consequences. Their passage further eroded the Cold War institutional structure of Congress, in which the body had sacrificed potent foreign policy tools in deference to executive authority. But if this change represented a short-term victory for congressional liberals, subsequent developments defied expectations that empowering Congress would pave the way for an anti-interventionist, prohuman rights foreign policy. Instead, conservatives proved as successful as their ideological foes in utilizing the revitalized congressional power. Meanwhile, as Cubanbacked forces consolidated their position in Angola, the Clark amendment came under strong attack, beginning a process in which the amendment came to symbolize congressional recklessness and an overly idealistic foreign policy that failed to take into account national security needs.

Throughout much of the postWorld War II period, most challenges to the legislature's institutional orthodoxy had come from liberals unhappy with the anticommunist foreign policies of the day. But the Tunney amendment also provided a precedent for members of Congress, regardless of their ideological persuasions, to use rejuvenated congressional power to challenge executive-branch foreign policy. President Jimmy Carter's international agenda suffered the consequences, coming under strong attack from senators who just a few years earlier had tried to block Tunney's initiative. In terms of immediately affecting policy, most of these conservative initiatives failed. But, as occurred with the liberal critics of containment a decade before, impassioned congressional debate framed the national discussion of foreign policy in a way that ultimately worked to the conservatives' advantage.

The newly strengthened conservatives had a more immediate impact on an area of traditional strength: national security policy. This effort culminated in the Senate battle against the SALT II treaty, which became the first arms-control agreement since the early 1950s that did not clear Congress. More important, the conservatives, led by Henry Jackson and Barry Goldwater, succeeded in beating back the Symington-led challenge to national security policy. By the late 1970s, in response to this conservative pressure, liberals such as John Culver, Carl Levin, and Patrick Leahythe ideological heirs of the dissenters of the early 1960swere on the defensive, attempting to show how their military philosophy would not undermine the U.S. position in the world. Conservatives again dominated debate over the armed services. The late 1970s and early 1980s thus joined the McCarranite era of the early 1950s as rare periods when the congressional right set the national agenda on foreign policy issues.

The growth of the congressional right also helped seal the fate of the foreign policy framework laws passed in the early 1970s, the most prominent of which was the War Powers Act of 1973. In contrast to domestic affairs, where the increasing tendency to handle through judicial or investigatory means disputes that previously would have been classified as political tended to increase congressional power, the last fifteen years of the Cold War featured the failure of the War Powers Act and other measures designed to restore the balance between the executive and Congress to work as their sponsors had desired. (The War Powers Act, for instance, required the president to obtain congressional approval within sixty days of initiating any overseas military authorization. But because the measure gave the president the authority to decide when to start the sixty-day clock, it has proven impossible to enforce.) In part, these initiatives did surprisingly little to alter the fundamental balance between the two branches because the legislation placed such a high priority on abstract constitutional concerns. By making their offerings such a frontal challenge to presidential authority, the sponsors of framework legislation almost always needed to gain a two-thirds majority in both chambers to overcome a presidential veto. But to achieve this goal, they needed to water down their proposals, as in the War Powers Act, when John Stennis insisted on a host of concessions that weakened the bill in exchange for his supporting the measure.

For example, the Cooper-Church Amendment, which cut off funds for Richard Nixon's secret incursion into Cambodia in 1970, was notable for the willingness of its sponsors to deny that its adoption would constrain the powers of the commander in chief, to decline to call for an instant cutoff of funding for the incursion, and to consent to a modifying amendment upholding the president's power to act in emergency situations to protect the lives of U.S. forces without consulting Congress. Similar developments frustrated congressional attempts to pass a restrictive war powers measure, where negotiations between the House and Senate produced a law limiting the amount of time in which the president could unilaterally send U.S. troops overseas (ninety days) rather than limiting the justifications for such action. The bill also allowed the president to decide when troops were introduced into harm's way, thus triggering the start of the time limit, while a key strengthening amendment to include the CIA under the terms of the bill failed.

Many of the difficulties that had prevented Congress from assuming an active role using such formal assertions of its power persisted throughout the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, congressional investigations into the intelligence community produced less comprehensive reforms and more political problems for their champions than could have been anticipated when the hearings began in 1975. For example, Frank Church found that his chairing the Senate committee investigating CIA matters interfered with his pursuit of the 1976 Democratic nomination for president; his House counterpart, Otis Pike of New York, oversaw such an unruly inquiry that his report was repudiated by the House, and he retired from Congress two years later. And although both chambers ultimately established intelligence oversight committees, the CIA proved effective at using a variety of tactics to frustrate attempts at vigorous oversight, particularly during the tenure of Director William Casey, who served from 1981 until his death in 1987.

Casey's boss, President Ronald Reagan, received an overwhelming majority in 1980, carrying forty-four states and bringing with him a Republican-controlled Senate. Foreign policy played a key role in his campaign, as Reagan called for a massive arms buildup and a renewed ideological confrontation with the Soviets. In addition, the GOP nominee explicitly argued that Congress had grown too powerful and implicitly suggested that congressional actions (such as the Clark amendment) had harmed U.S. national security. Because Republicans controlled the Senate for most of his tenure, Reagan faced less effective opposition from the upper chamber than, arguably, any chief executive in the twentieth century. The House offered a different story: Democrats gained twenty-six seats in the 1982 election and had a comfortable working majority for the rest of the 1980s. Led by the partisan House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr., and Majority Leader Jim Wright, surviving Watergate-era Democrats such as Thomas J. Downey, Michael Barnes, and Mike Synar came into their own during Reagan's tenure. In the process they made the House as formidable a foreign policy force as at any point in American history.

The Reagan years yielded a mixed legacy regarding congressional power. As had been the case essentially since their passage, the War Powers Act and other framework legislation failed to bolster congressional power. Reagan undertook three provocative military operations during his presidency, sending armed forces to Lebanon and Grenada and launching air strikes against Libya. The Libyan and Grenadan operations ended quickly, but, particularly in the case of Grenada (where the United States sent troops to topple a Marxist government), there seemed to be no justification for not invoking the War Powers Act. The president called the marines sent to Lebanon "peacekeepers," but the peace they kept favored the Maronite Christian president in the country's long-running civil war. Facing congressional criticism, the administration negotiated a compromise in which it promised to seek legislative authorization if the intervention lasted longer than eighteen months. Even in this instance, Reagan maintained that the decision did not imply that he recognized the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, and, indeed, Congress's willingness to accept the plan essentially made the 1973 law a dead letter. In the end, the troops were withdrawn before the eighteen-month limit after the bombing of the marines stationed at the U.S. embassy in Beirut.

While the Reagan years shattered hopes that the framework legislation could succeed, the 1980s did show thatas Gouverneur Morris and James Madison long before had predictedthe power of the purse provided an important tool for Congress to influence foreign policy. Throughout Reagan's term, members of Congress used appropriations riders, hearings, and other unconventional methods to challenge the administration's foreign policy, especially toward the Third World. Few would have predicted this development in the late 1970s, when conservative critics targeted initiatives like the Clark amendment and other congressional expressions favoring human rights diplomacy. Theorists such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's first ambassador to the United Nations, recommended distinguishing between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, with the former worthy of supportdespite human rights violationsbecause of the anticommunist nature of most totalitarian governments. This critique grew more powerful as anti-American regimes came to power in Iran and Nicaragua; and Reagan, after his election in 1980, adopted the Kirkpatrick philosophy as his own.

This deemphasis on idealism provided an opening for Reagan's congressional critics. Perhaps the most effective was Michael Barnes, a scholarly Democrat first elected in 1976 who took over as chair of the Inter-American Relations Subcommittee following the defeats of several more senior Democrats in the 1980 elections. Barnes, the first Watergate-era Democrat to chair a foreign policy subcommittee, made the most of his opportunity. Reagan's policy of aiding the contras (anticommunist guerillas attempting to topple the Sandinista government in Nicaragua) dominated the debate regarding 1980s inter-American policy, but Barnes used his position to focus matters on human rights abuses by anticommunist governments in Chile, Uruguay, and Guatemala as well. Congressional criticism also helped cause a shift in U.S. policy toward Chile and the Philippines, where Reagan had come to office pledging to support the dictatorial regimes of Augusto Pinochet and Ferdinand Marcos. Examples of the pattern included senators with such diverse ideological viewpoints as Christopher Dodd, who led the Senate opposition to Reagan's policy in Central America, and Richard Lugar, who helped persuade the Reagan administration to end U.S. support for Marcos's regime in the Philippines. Moreover, a congressional willingness to use the appropriations power set the stage for the most important scandal of the Reagan years, the Iran-Contra affair, when the administration covertly funneled arms to anticommunist forces in Central America in direct contravention of the Boland Amendment. The revelation of the affair in late 1986 severely impaired Reagan's political standing and damaged his historical legacy.


The end of the Cold War broke down the established pattern of legislative-executive relations. The Cold War's conclusion accelerated the trend, which began with Vietnam and Watergate, of diminishing the federal government's role in the everyday lives of most Americans. The new international environment forced members of both branches to search for new ideological approaches to world affairs. And it coincided withand perhaps contributed tothe most extended period of divided government (with one party controlling Congress and another the presidency) in American history.

Most academics and politicians had predicted that the end of the Cold War would establish a more consistent congressional presence in U.S. foreign policy because the threat of immediate nuclear attack had so dramatically receded. But the first postCold War president, George H. W. Bush, defied expectations, even though he faced a Congress controlled by Democrats for his entire term. Encouraged by his White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, Bush proved extraordinarily aggressive at defending (and enlarging) executive prerogatives, using vetoes and especially presidential signing statements to outline a vision of presidential power whose scope would have stunned even a figure like Alexander Hamilton. A sign of his intentions came in his first year, when he sent marines to Panama in 1989without congressional authorizationto remove from power and arrest Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, who was wanted in the United States on drug charges. Bush also rejected congressional attempts to influence policy toward the People's Republic of China, consistently vetoing bills to tighten sanctions on the Beijing regime after the Tiananmen Square crackdown against student dissidents.

Congressional Democrats, who generally outmaneuvered Bush on domestic issues, had more difficulty in adjusting to the postCold War environment. The new Senate majority leader, Maine senator George Mitchell, was a former judge and believed that framework legislation, if properly used, would allow Congress to play a greater foreign policy role. The run-up to the Gulf War of 1991 put this thesis to the test. After Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush, acting in concert with U.S. allies, eventually sent 250,000 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. But, citing the measure's unconstitutionality, Bush refused to invoke the War Powers Act. After the 1990 midterm elections, the administration moved another quarter million U.S. forces into the region, clearly anticipating the possibility of offensive action. Bush officials suggested that the president would go to war with Iraq without requesting a declaration of war from Congress, citing his power as commander in chief.

Led by Mike Synar, a group of House Democrats petitioned the Supreme Court for redress. But in line with precedent, the Court declined to involve itself in foreign policy battles between the executive and legislative branches. (Indeed, the few decisions the high court did render on international issues, such as the 1983 ruling Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, which ruled the one-house legislative veto unconstitutional, tended to weaken congressional influence.) Although Synar's effort failed, political pressure eventually persuaded Bush to submit a bill authorizing him to use force. The president did so, however, only days short of an announced deadline to initiate offensive action and with more than 500,000 U.S. troops stationed along the IraqSaudi Arabia border. In such an environment it came as little surprise that Congress supported the war declaration; perhaps the real shock came in the forty-seven senators who opposed the resolution.

The record regarding congressional power after the Gulf War was somewhat mixed. Like his predecessor, William Jefferson Clinton struggled with the effects of divided government: a crushing defeat in the 1994 midterm elections brought Republicans to power in both the House and the Senate. Moreover, unlike the Mitchell-led congressional Democrats during the Bush administration, the new GOP majority was fairly united ideologically and was determined to use congressional power to implement its agenda. Clinton experienced difficulties with Congress almost from the start of his administration. Legislative pressure in part forced the administration to reverse itself on issues ranging from Clinton's commitment to end discrimination against gays in the military to the president's decision to continue an ill-conceived humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Even the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, Clinton's first legislative victory on a foreign policy matter (and, in many ways, the only significant one of his administration) came only after a bloody fight with Congress.

After 1994, a condition of almost permanent hostility between the president and Congress developed. Congressional Republicans offered a multifaceted program that coalesced into an unusually powerfuland effectivecritique of the executive's approach to world affairs. Ideologically, the congressional Republicans had several basic viewpoints that reinforced each other. Some GOP legislators seemed eager to revive the Cold War, embracing a vehement anticommunism and supporting hard-line policies toward China, Cuba, and North Korea. Moreover, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the congressional Republicans used Congress's power of the purse to prevent the scaling back of the Pentagon budget, partly for ideological reasons, partly due to a desire to funnel defense dollars to their home districts or states. From another angle, Republicans such as House Majority Leader Richard Armey of Texas boasted of their lack of overseas travel and espoused an anti-internationalism that targeted organizations like the United Nations. Most of the new wave of congressional Republicans also opposed overseas interventionslike Clinton's actions in Haiti and the Balkanswhich they viewed as Wilsonian in theory.

Three other factors made the congressional power exercised by the 1990s GOP somewhat unusual. First, after their opposition to the Gulf War, congressional Democrats, for the previous forty years the more active of the two parties in seeking to utilize congressional power, all but ceased involvement on matters relating to foreign affairs. Second, after a series of weak leaders following the 1974 defeat of J. William Fulbright, the Foreign Relations Committee returned to a higher profile under the stewardship of the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, whose aggressive posture made him a factor on virtually all international questions during the Clinton administration. Finally, the extreme distaste most congressional Republicans felt for Clinton gave party members a political incentive to oppose executive authority in foreign policy, as when Congress refused to renew Clinton's authority to "fast-track" trade agreements, a luxury enjoyed by every president since the passage of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act in 1934.

Still, the performance of the congressional GOP sometimes failed to live up to its rhetoric. For example, while Clinton's ability to negotiate tariff deals was impeded, he acted unilaterally and in opposition to the stated congressional position when he intervened to prop up the Mexican peso in 1995. Similarly, in the midst of the war in Kosovo, he initiated hostilities without formally consulting Congress and then ignored GOP-sponsored legislation that seemed to call for him to terminate the operation. Regardless of the precise balance between the two branches at the end of the twentieth century, however, older patterns in congressional power remained in place: the role of the appropriations process and other unconventional methods in measuring the congressional presence in conducting U.S. foreign policy; the importance of party divisions in shaping attitudes toward the congressional role in world affairs; and the tendency of Congress to offer more ideologically extreme viewpoints on international matters than did the executive.


Accinelli, Robert. "Eisenhower, Congress, and the 19541955 Offshore Island Crisis." Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (spring 1990): 329344. A good study of the limits of congressional power during the Eisenhower years.

Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition. Cambridge and New York, 1987. The best published study of the League of Nations battle in the Senate.

Arnson, Cynthia. Crossroads: Congress, the Reagan Administration, and Central America. New York, 1989.

Ashby, LeRoy. The Spearless Leader: Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920s. Urbana, Ill., 1972. The best biography of the career of the 1920s Foreign Relations Committee chair.

Banks, William C., and Peter Raven-Hansen. National Security Law and the Power of the Purse. New York, 1994.

Bernstein, Barton, and Franklin Leib. "Progressive Republican Senators and American Imperialism: A Reappraisal." Mid-America 50 (1968): 163205. An excellent study of the relationship between congressional power and liberal dissent before World War I.

Blechman, Barry M. The Politics of National Security: Congress and U.S. Defense Policy. New York, 1990. A nicely done study of how Congress has influenced national security matters since World War II.

Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 193245. Lincoln, Neb., 1983.

Franck, Thomas M., ed. The Tethered Presidency: Congressional Restraints on Executive Power. New York, 1981. A somewhat dated volume that remains valuable for the depth of its coverage.

Franck, Thomas M., and Edward Weisband. Foreign Policy by Congress. New York, 1979.

Gaskin, Thomas M. "Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the Eisenhower Administration, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 19571960." Presidential Studies Quarterly 24 (spring 1994): 337353.

Gibbons, William Conrad. The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships. 4 vols. Princeton, N.J., 19861995. The standard account of Congress and the Vietnam War.

Gleijeses, Piero. "The Limits of Sympathy: The United States and the Independence of Spanish America." Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (1992): 481505.

Griffith, Robert. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. Lexington, Ky., 1970.

Hietala, Thomas R. Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985. A good model of integrating congressional history with the broader study of U.S. foreign relations.

Hinckley, Barbara. Less Than Meets the Eye: Foreign Policy Making and the Myth of the Assertive Congress. Chicago, 1994.

Hoyt, Steven, and Steven Baker, eds. Legislating Foreign Policy. Boulder, Colo., 1984.

Johnson, Loch K. A Season of Inquiry: Congress and Intelligence. Chicago, 1988.

Lindsay, James M. Congress and the Politics of U.S. Defense Policy. Baltimore, 1994. Much broader than its title suggests, the best book to date on Congress and the Cold War.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. A remarkable example of how including the congressional perspective enriches the writing of international history.

Olmsted, Kathryn S. Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996.

Pastor, Robert A. Congress and the Politics of U.S. Foreign Economic Policy, 19291976. Berkeley, Calif., 1980.

Paterson, Thomas G. "Presidential Foreign Policy, Public Opinion, and Congress: The Truman Years." Diplomatic History 3 (1979): 121.

Rakove, Jack N. "Solving a Constitutional Puzzle: The Treatymaking Clause as a Case Study." Perspectives in American History, n.s. 1(1984): 207248. The most thoroughly researched piece on congressional power in foreign affairs and the Constitutional Convention.

Reichard, Gary W. "Divisions and Dissent: Democrats and Foreign Policy, 19521956." Political Science Quarterly 93 (1978): 3765. A solid study of the Democrats' "limited dissent."

Ripley, Randall B., and James M. Lindsay, eds. Congress Resurgent: Foreign and Defense Policy on Capitol Hill. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993.

Schoultz, Lars. Human Rights and United States Policy Toward Latin America. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Small, Melvin. Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 17891994. Baltimore, 1996.

Smist, Frank. Congress Oversees the Intelligence Community, 19471989. Knoxville, Tenn., 1994.

Stone, Ralph. The Irreconcilables: The Fight Against the League of Nations. Lexington, Ky., 1970.

Widenor, William C. Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy. Berkeley, Calif., 1981. A model in congressional biography, of Wilson's leading foe in the League of Nations fight.

Woods, Randall Bennett. Fulbright: A Biography. New York, 1995. A much-needed study of arguably the most powerful Foreign Relations Committee chair in U.S. history.

See also Ambassadors, Executive Agents, and Special Representatives; Bipartisanship; The Constitution; Elitism; Foreign Aid; Presidential Power; Public Opinion; Treaties .


The Senate came into its own as a foreign policy force between 1850 and 1870. For most of early American history, the House of Representatives was the dominant actor on international matters. Talented politicians, like Henry Clay and Albert Gallatin, bolstered the power of the lower chamber. That the Senate conducted its debates in secret until the early 1800s decreased its public profile. And most contentious issues regarding both domestic and foreign policysuch as the War of 1812 and the Missouri Compromiseoriginated in the House.

In the 1830s the Senate began its golden age, peopled by the "great triumvirate" of Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun. But it was not until the end of the Mexican War that foreign policy power shifted to the Senate. The rise of the Republican Party, the institutional effects of the slavery issue, and the fact that most key initiatives in 1850s foreign policy involved powers assigned to the Senate but not the House (such as treatymaking and confirming ambassadors) facilitated the transformation.

The final factor in this process came during and after the Civil War, when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner assumed the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sumner first attracted national attention during the Mexican War, when he delivered a public speech in Boston denouncing the conflict as immoral. He became a household name after being canedin the Senate chamberby proslavery Representative Preston Brooks.

As Foreign Relations Committee chair, Sumner demonstrated his political skills, showing how he could use the institutional powers of the Senate to rally support even from colleagues that did not necessarily share his approach to international affairs. Sumner most made his influence felt in 1870, when he almost single-handedly blocked President Ulysses S. Grant's treaty to annex the Dominican Republic. Future Foreign Relations Committee chairs of both partiesfigures such as Augustus Bacon, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Borah, Arthur Vandenberg, and J. William Fulbrightbuilt on Sumner's precedents.

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