Monday, April 02, 2007

Congressional Foreign Policy

The Bush administration undoubtedly overreaches when it contends that the President's power as Commander in Chief precludes Congress---which has more enumerated powers relative to war than the President does---from "micro-managing" the war through troop withdrawal deadlines and the like. Yet surely the administration has a point (albeit a different one) in objecting to Speaker Pelosi's acting as messenger to Syria on Israel's behalf at a time when the State Department opposes direct talks with Syria. (Whether that opposition makes sense is a different matter.) The Constitution's Article II gives the President the power to "receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers," while providing Congress with no parallel authority for conducting diplomacy---other than the power to confirm U.S. diplomats.

The conventional wisdom holds that the government should speak with one voice on matters of foreign relations, and having Congress conduct its own diplomatic missions certainly contradicts that wisdom. To be sure, it's not obvious that the conventional wisdom is right. For example, recently the administration has been using congressional threats of funding cuts to Iraq and Pakistan as a bad cop to its own good cop, and even if the tactic fails in these particular cases, it can be generally useful. That strikes me as true even if the good cop and bad cop are not simply playing a game but are in fact pursuing different policies. The resulting ambiguity can turn out to be productive.

But even if the conventional wisdom is therefore sometimes wrong as a matter of policy, it looks right as a matter of constitutional interpretation. The Constitution is best read to forbid congressional freelancing (to be distinguished from such things as congressional factfinding missions to foreign countries for the purpose of oversight of appropritations and related matters). Speaker Pelosi may undermine her public position on Iraq---where the Constitution clearly contemplates a substantial role for Congress---by asserting authority in an area where the Constitution truly supports Presidential prerogrative.

12 comments:

egarber said...

I was thinking the same thing, as to Congress walking on the president's feet.

However, not that it matters to proper constitutional interpretation, I do wonder if there were instances in the 90's when Republicans did the same thing.

Tom Delay tells us today that it's unpatriotic (his word) to criticize the president when troops are engaged; yet there is a mile-long list of Delay comments from the 90's criticizing Clinton's Kosovo (and other) operations. Troops were certainly deployed at the time. I can't help but wonder about shifting postures here as well.

PG said...

I don't think Republicans like to spend time with foreigners, particularly ones who aren't firmly our allies already, so they're less likely to receive ambassadors, etc., than Democrats are.

Laurence said...

As usual, the president's point is pointedly political. There have been of course Republican Congressional delegations that have visited Syria. In fact, there is one going on right now. So, why no protests from the administration on the Republican members of Congress conducting who rogue diplomacy?

see Josh Marshal for more detail:
http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/013423.php

egarber said...

To Laurence:

I think there's a distinction between "fact-finding" and actual policy-making. The lines may get blurred, for sure. But it's a meaningful difference, imo.

egarber said...

And just to throw out another question:

If there's value in protecting the president's foreign policy prerogative, is it maybe more acceptable if his party makes such trips -- because members will be much more likely to act in accordance with his policy?

Now admittedly, if one thinks Congress has its own authority in this sphere, you'll see absolute hypocrisy in the administration freaking out over Dems while giving Repubs a free pass.

But I'm asking in the context of a rule-set where the foreign policy power resides in the presidency.

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