Wherever you stood on Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster to delay John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director, or on the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Brennan and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, they all serve as a reminder of just how feeble Congress has proven to be when it comes to foreign policy.
This wasn’t immediately obvious, of course. Paul’s speech questioned whether there are limits on the president’s power to use drones to kill Americans who’ve been declared “enemy combatants.” But the CIA and military have been using drones overseas for years and this was the first time Congress really pondered the issue. That’s a measure of its dereliction, not of stepping up to the plate. Why has it taken so long to see significant congressional review of the president’s power to use drones?
Meanwhile, if you followed the confirmation hearings, you’d have to conclude that Congress thinks U.S. foreign policy centers on Israel, Cuba and the destroyed consulate in Benghazi, Libya. On the long list of significant foreign policy issues confronting the White House — the rise of China, a war looming with Iran, increased tensions on the Korean peninsula, the fragmentation of Syria, Libya, the spread of Al Qaida to northern Africa — there’s mostly been silence from Congress. Our strategic framework agreement with Iraq? The agreement we’re negotiating with Afghanistan? The key issue of when, where, and how we commit American forces abroad? Congress has been missing in action.
This is not how it’s supposed to be. Our Constitution gives Congress strong levers for dealing with foreign policy. It has oversight of the executive branch, and can hold hearings and demand information. It has the power of the purse, and with it the ability to explore key issues of behavior and policy before approving the budget. It has the power to declare war, and to raise and maintain an Army and Navy. In the Senate, it has the confirmation process, which allows senators to probe and evaluate policies.
Yet for the most part, Congress prefers deference to executive power. Most of its members, who know that their re-election rests on domestic issues, don’t bother to gain the expertise or develop the political will to become potent and valuable foreign policy contributors, as the Constitution intended. Institutionally, Congress likes leaving decisions to the President and then blaming him if they turn out to be wrong — or it tries to have it both ways, as with Benghazi, cutting funds for state department security and then criticizing the department for not having enough security.
The executive branch is hardly blameless. The White House, whether under Republican or Democratic control, typically sees Congress as a nuisance and an obstacle to be overcome, not a partner.
Yet that’s a reason for Congress to try harder, not to fold. Our system is based on the premise that better policy emerges if the president and Congress work together. It depends on Congress to hold executive policies up to the light and to weigh in with its own concerns.
To do this, members need to be fully informed both about the complexities of foreign issues and about what the administration is doing. They need to make robust oversight commonplace, asking executive-branch policymakers to spell out and justify policies and their implementation. They need to use the power of the purse to grant or deny funds if their views are not taken into account. They need to develop the expertise — both among themselves and on staff — that would allow them to be both critic and partner in the development of foreign policy.
And above all, those members who do understand the ins and outs of foreign matters need to press Congress to set aside its reluctance to affect foreign policy. That is where the real failings lie — not with individual members, but with how Congress acts as an institution in the formulation of American foreign policy.
Developing American foreign policy is complicated, confusing and sometimes frustrating. But our country is at its strongest when it is unified and speaks with the voice not just of the president, but of the American people’s representatives in Congress. It’s time for Congress to shoulder its responsibilities on foreign policy.
Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.