Congress and the president need to consult – and not just on Iran
CONGRESS has developed a fondness for open letters when it comes to Iran. First came the warning shot signed by 47 Republican senators that touched off a storm of criticism.
Not to be outdone, the house of representatives checked in with its own bipartisan and more diplomatically stated letter to the president, warning that its members must be satisfied with any agreement before they’ll vote to reduce sanctions.
What lies behind these moves? I think congress feels left out of foreign policy-making.
I have considerable sympathy for this impulse. Over the decades, too much power has drifted to the president when it comes to foreign affairs. Congress has been deferential, even timid, in allowing this to happen.
Moreover, the administration has not done an especially good job of consulting with congress. The president is the chief actor in foreign policy and it’s his obligation to reach out and develop a sustained dialogue with congress on foreign-policy matters. As far as I can tell, he has not done that sufficiently.
Yet, much as I want to see congress speak up on foreign policy, how it does so matters. The senate’s letter to Iran was ill-considered and unhelpful. Its purpose was to defeat the nuclear negotiations and it undercut the president while he was trying to negotiate a deal with another world leader.
It raised questions about America’s reliability, invited doubt about the president’s ability to negotiate a deal and created a major distraction at a crucial moment. The letter undermined not only this president’s credibility but that of future presidents as well. It suggests that no one in the US government is empowered to strike a deal.
The letter did focus appropriately on presidential use of executive orders to conduct foreign policy, but it wrongly implied that presidents are hamstrung in the conduct of policy. The senators suggested that an executive order on Iran is likely to be reversed by a future president, which is not true. Presidential deals with other countries are rarely overturned by their successors.
In part, this is because, once an agreement is in place, it becomes very difficult to undo – especially if it’s working. Also, presidents are reluctant to reverse their predecessors’ work because they don’t want to undercut the same tool they themselves rely on to pursue their foreign-policy goals.
As a nation, we’ve gotten into the bad habit of using executive orders for the most important foreign-policy initiatives – including such watershed moments as Richard Nixon’s opening toward China and Barack Obama’s accord with Syria banning the use of chemical weapons.
In recent decades, 94 per cent of pacts between the USA and other countries have been under executive orders; just six per cent have been done by treaty. This is because treaties require a two-thirds vote of the senate before they can be ratified and that has become a near-impossible milestone to reach.
Yet the fact that a president can act on his own does not mean that he should do so. The reliance on executive orders means we have no clear mechanism, or even requirement, for the president to consult and work with congress on foreign policy. So congress feels left out of the action and, in an effort to deal itself back in, it behaves clumsily, as the senate did with the Iran letter.
The way past these bitter battles is meaningful consultation. The president and congress need to consult regularly and in depth before problems come to a head. Sustained and respectful consultation would go a long way toward avoiding the acrimonious contention over foreign policy that we’ve seen of late.
Edward Corwin, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton in the first half of the 20th century, once called the US constitution an “invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy” – a line that is far better known than Corwin himself. During the past half-century, the contest has largely been decided in favor of the president.
Congress’ bid to reopen the question is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But, if the president and congress want to avoid these flare-ups and strengthen the nation’s foreign policy, they should exercise in-depth, sustained consultation.
In search of a more perfect union
THE QUESTION usually comes toward the end of a public meeting. Some knotty problem is being discussed and someone in the audience will raise his or her hand and ask: “OK, so what can I do about it?”
I love that question. Not because I’ve ever answered it to my satisfaction but because it bespeaks such a constructive outlook.
The usual advice that politicians give is to vote, work for a candidate, let your elected officials know what you think and participate in community life. This is good counsel – but only as far as it goes. With a little more time now to answer the question, I’d add a few other points.
First, it’s important that citizens appreciate how hard it is to solve problems in a representative democracy. Every issue – even a stop sign at a corner – is more complex than it appears. Understanding and appreciating the complexities is the only way to see how and where you can make progress.
It’s also vital to learn that solving problems means working with all kinds of people. It requires bringing different points of view together, developing connections to key players in your community, talking face to face with others who might not agree with you and communicating your ideas effectively – including to the media.
It also means learning that differences can exist without personal animosity and recognizing the common ground on which you can build agreement.
There is a key lesson that comes from trying to solve a particular problem – it tends to make you less ideological and more pragmatic. It forces you to examine the options in front of you and to figure out what resources are at hand to help you pursue them.
Politics is not a game for everyone but there are other ways to be involved in community life. Regardless of the avenue they choose, it’s the people who step forward who refresh this country and make it stronger.
Our constitution’s preamble begins: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” At heart, that’s what getting involved means – shouldering the challenges, shared responsibilities and opportunities that democracy thrusts upon us as we pursue a more perfect union.
That’s what I want to say to the people who ask: “What can I do about it?” The journey is hard and complicated but it’s the most satisfying work I can imagine.
Lee Hamilton is director of The Center On Congress At Indiana University and was a member of the US house of representatives for 34 years.