All politics is local - congressional decision-making in foreign policy

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 34 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: USA



1 Introduction

2 Congress and its Role in Foreign Policy
2.1 Constitutional Perspective
2.2 Historical Perspective
2.3 Institutional Perspective

3 Influences on Foreign policy decision making
3.1 Party
3.2 Interest groups
3.3 Public Opinion
3.4 Constituency
3.5 Fellow Members of Congress
3.6 Staff
3.7 Ideology


5 Appendix


1 Introduction

The dominant player in international politics is unmistakably the United States of America. U.S. economic, military and cultural superiority is shaping world politics and setting the stage for the next generation. U.S. foreign policy features the image of the United States President and to a lesser extent that of the Secretary of State and Defense. They are the predominant figures that drive U.S. foreign policy on the international stage.

The system of checks and balances neatly involves two branches of government – executive and legislative – in a construct of interdependence. Congress is the government branch of ‘the people’. The two-year term cycles for House Representatives and the large number of districts make Congress the most ‘representative’ institution in the U.S. government. In contemporary political science the state of being represented is described by ‘Principle-Agent-Relationship’, in which the representative – the agent – closely represents his constituency – the principle.[1]

"It doesn't pay off for my constituency"[2]

said Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) when asked, why she wanted to get off of the House International Relations Committee (HIRC). This incident was my first impression of foreign policy in the U.S. Congress. Having heard that, I went to a HIRC oversight hearing to see how they conduct their business. What struck me most was the fact that the members devoted approx. half of their speaking time of total five minutes to the actual issue at stake and the other half to an issue that was absolutely irrelevant to the pending business. As I found out later, the irrelevant issues were important for the individual member to have been mentioned to the panel[3] and C-SPAN[4].

The subsequent past months I spent on ‘the Hill’, observing congressional (foreign) policy- and decision-making, with three leading questions bearing in mind:

1. Is the U.S. Congress important for U.S. foreign policy?
2. What factors influence decision making in foreign policy?
3. Does constituency play a role in the making and shaping of foreign policy?

Having these three questions in mind, I will continue the discussion from my seminar presentation[5] in which I have talked about strategic voting in the committee system and highlighted from the seminar-text that shows Members of Congress representing their constituency reflecting constituents’ preferences,[6] which means they serve "as a delegate or deputy of the particular constituent"[7]. The first part of this paper will deal with the institution ‘Congress’ and how it is involved in foreign policy and how Congressmen and -women are involved in foreign policy making.

The second part of this paper analysis factors that influence Members of Congress acting on foreign policy issues. The continuum of involvement ranges from the passive (minimum-) involvement that is the decision-making process regarding floor-votes (voting behavior), via advertising, credit claiming, and position taking to the active involvement of policy-making.

For the purpose of this paper, I define ‘foreign policy’ as an action, carried out by individuals or institutions that are aimed at achieving a policy outcome in foreign countries or in the international community.

2 Congress and its Role in Foreign Policy

Glimpse: Congress represents a people of whom 80 per cent do not possess a passport; in fact, a substantial number of the Member of Congress (MC) does not possess a passport either.

In this part of the paper I want to find out, if ‘It doesn’t pay off for my constituency’ implies ‘It doesn’t matter to Congress’. I am going to examine, if Congress is willing and capable to engage in foreign policy?

To get an impression of to what extent Congress is working on foreign policy issues, I looked at the complete 1st session of the 107th Congress, counted the roll call votes, and categorized them in issues areas. I came up with following numbers (CHART A): 44 out of 1105 roll call votes were issued in the foreign policy area. That is 3.98% of all given votes, but more than four votes above the average.[8]

We now know that Congress is in fact dealing to certain extend with foreign policy issues but we could also assume that the low number indicates a secondary role foreign policy issues. Having that in mind, I will now look at how Congress is situated in the foreign policy making process from a constitutional, historical, and institutional perspective.

2.1 Constitutional Perspective

“In no area is the constitutional imbalance more striking and more alarming than in the field of foreign policy”

Senator Fulbright (D-Ark.) 1965.[9]

Although the constitution does not explicitly mention who has the authority of managing foreign affairs[10] the role of the ‘foreign affairs manager’ has been clearly taken by the President. The President is the Commander in Chief, chief negotiator, and chief diplomat. His cabinet supervises executive institutions such as State Department, Department of Defense, CIA, and NSC. When the founding fathers Hamilton and Madison created the omnipresent system ‘of checks and balances’ applicable to all fields of government activity, they created interdependence between the two branches. The Constitution delegate under Article 1, section 8 an array of specific and implied foreign policy powers to Congress: the power to declare war, raise and support armies, provide and maintain a navy, to regulate land and naval forces, and to regulate trade and immigration. More significant is the power to appropriate funds – “power of the purse" – and the right to congressional oversight. In addition to the separately delegated powers, some powers are shared between the branches.[11]

At first sight this looks quite straight forward, but a second looks reveals problems that might arise. An emblematic example is the constitutional struggle between Congress and the President about the right to begin war. While Congress has the right to ‘declare’ war, presidents – as commander in chiefs – have often used their power to initiate war (McCormick). On the proviso of national security interests, the President is able to engage the military on a foreign nation’s soil for as long as sixty days before he has to seek congressional approval Congress.[12] Thus the quarrel about the war power has been clearly won by the President, despite a congressional attempt[13] to bind the right to Congress in 1974.

Altogether, certain constitutional provisions – and their interpretations – give the foreign policy prerogative to the President.

2.2 Historical Perspective

The “constitutional flaws” in the vague dispatching of foreign policy powers have not only led to temporary quarrels between the two branches about particular powers, but have resulted in a continuous struggle with a shifting center of ‘foreign policy gravity’ between Congress and the President.

Originally Congress was the primarily responsible institution for foreign affairs, conducted through its Committee for Foreign Affairs. But already during the early years, the executive branch seized the leadership role in foreign affairs from an acquiescent Congress and has since, with a few exceptions, witnessed a steady accretion of executive power.

Two periods of congressional foreign policy activity in the last century are noteworthy: the policy consensus in the early cold war era from 1947 to 1968 and the period of congressional reassertment after the Vietnam War. The early cold war era centered on the Soviet threat resulting in the dominating presidential foreign policy of ‘containment’. In Congress this era was mirrored by bipartisanship "deferent to executive leadership on foreign policy issues"[14]. Scott[15] presents data, which shows that the congressional foreign policy outputs over the cold war era has been in 70.8% of all cases compliant or to some degree resistant (“resistant” in the meaning of slightly less cooperative than “compliant”).[16] As a matter of fact, the total annual congressional foreign policy activity, not only for this period, but for the second half of the century (1946-97) is declining (CHART C).[17] Thus, we could assume that Congress actually plays a secondary role in foreign policy.[18] But if we look closer at the second period, the post-Vietnam War era, we find a parallel development of congressional foreign policy activity – “with the decline of cold war tension congressional activism in foreign policy had been encouraged” (Crabb, 2000). Although, the level of activity did not rise in total numbers, but instead, as per Scott, Congress is inclined to be more assertive[19] (CHART D).[20] Congressional compliance fell by almost half, to 22.6%, while resistant, rejection, independent behavior all increased significantly (Scott, 2002). The explanation for this development focuses around arguments of increased international trade and its importance for the domestic economy, the decline of a national security threat, and institutional changes in Congress.

2.3 Institutional Perspective

“The uphill battle that Congress faces in challenging the executive branch in foreign policy”


In order to understand how Members of Congress can play a role in foreign policy, either individually or as an institution, I want to shed some light upon the mechanisms and tools MC can utilize.

McCormick lists two sets of foreign policy mechanisms: legislative and non-legislative mechanisms. Legislative mechanisms derive from Congress’ legislative prerogatives. Among the legislative mechanisms we recognize substantive legislation that immediately affects foreign policy and procedural legislation that affects the process of foreign policymaking.

The use of substantive legislation in the field of foreign policy is rather unusual. Moreover, a large amount of votes on the floor can be considered as “taking a stand” and are not foreign policy-making. These bills are non-significant, such as bills concerning awards, memorials, declarations or other legislation that is being considered under the suspension of the rules[22], hence uncontroversial.[23] Furthermore, a significant amount of bills and legislation is initiated from the White House. As we only look at substantive legislation that is truly originating in Congress, legislation from the executive needs to be left out of this consideration. The remaining is very small in seize and apart of Appropriation bills I can think of only three significant cases in which Congress could substantially influence foreign policy with legislation: the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986[24], the Boland Amendments in 1983[25], and the change of Clinton’s arms embargo policy towards Bosnia in 1995[26].

Procedural legislation is much more likely to be used by Congress as a way to influence foreign policy. Procedural reforms in the 1970s have established several policy making tools in Congress. They include creating new bureaucracies and assigning responsibilities to agencies. An example is the creation of an U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), who ensures that the executive “is attentive to congressional concerns” (McCormick 1997). A very significant procedural legislation tool is the legislative veto[27]. It allows Congress to incorporate within a piece of legislation a provision that enables it to halt or change the President’s implementation of the law by declaring its objection by means of passing a subsequent legislative resolution.[28] However, the legislative veto in the field of foreign policy can only be used restrictively.[29] Notwithstanding, it applies in the case of arms sales abroad and human rights monitoring of foreign aid recipients.

Non-legislative mechanisms cover a wide variety of activities that Congress and its members use to at the least present their views in foreign policy and at the most influence foreign policy making at most. As indicated it can be subdivided into action taken by Congress or individual by one of its members. To the first category I refer oversight activities. Hearings in committees or subcommittee are important venues to inform the executive about Congress’ view on foreign policy. “The advent of televised hearings since the 1960 has increased their impact dramatically” (McCormick 1997, 325).[30] Another non-legislative mechanism is the concurrent resolution. This kind of resolution is not legally binding and therefore has not the use of force but they indicate the level of attention to an issue. Another mechanism is the report accompanying any bill. The report explains how a law should (not shall!) be implemented. Usually these reports accompany foreign aid or Department of State Authorization bills and show to the executive branch how Congress wants particular sections implemented and how much discretion Congress allows in carrying out the policy.

Members as individual actors also have a wide array of creative means at their disposal. The selection ranges from writing personal letters[31] addressed to the executive branch to initiating lawsuits against the executive.[32] Some members are actively involved in diplomatic efforts dealing with other governments.[33] MC have a variety of options they can use in order to express their views on specific foreign policy issues, which is either done within the institutional structure of Congress in committee hearings[34] or statements in the “morning business”[35] or it can be done through public appearances on television shows[36] respectively in newspaper editorials.

When Congress and its members communicate their foreign policy views and seek to influence the foreign policy agenda, the President can anticipate how Congress will react to his foreign policy initiatives and actions and will usually modify his strategy and expectations accordingly, lending credence to the notion of anticipated reaction (McCormick, 1997).[37]

To sum up, “Congress’ ability to influence foreign policy indirectly [through non-legislative mechanisms] is much greater than the substantive legislation that the institution might or might not pass…”[38] Altogether, some two fifths of MC action that involved foreign or defense policy in the last two centuries has been legislative actions, three fifths has been referred to as action of "taking a stand".[39]


[1] Lane, Ersson: The New Institutional Politics – Performance and Outcomes. London 2000, pp. 38-73.

[2] 02/06/2003, Washington D.C.

[3] In this hearing it was Secretary of State Colin Powel presenting the State Department’s policy outlook for fiscal year 2004.

[4] C-SPAN (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network) is the TV station that broadcasts continuously floor and committee action, as well as press conferences and speeches uncommented to the public.

[5] Presentation was held 11/20/2002.

[6] Kathleen Bawn analyzed a roll call vote on the EMB (Energy Mobilization Board, 1979) bill and identified a relationship between certain characteristics of the districts/constituencies and the members' voting record. (Bawn, Kathleen, Strategic Responses to Institutional Change: Parties, Committees and Multiple Referrals, in: Public Choice 33, 1996, pp. 239-258.)

[7] Dye, Greene, Partheinos: American Government: Theory, structure, and Process, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc. Belmont, California, 1969; Chapter 9 – In Congress Assembled, p. 212.

[8] That does not imply anything. We do not know how the volume of each single piece of legislation was nor do we now the importance of each bill. In fact only six issue fields had more votes accounted for. These six fields totaled 611 votes and constituted the major part (55.29%) of all votes. See Chart A in appendix.

[9] Ryan C. Hendrickson: The Clinton Wars - The Constitution, Congress, and War Powers. Vanderbilt University Press. 2002. p.14.

[10] The words “foreign affairs, foreign relations, foreign policy, and national security do not even appear in the original document.

[11] Such are in the area of treaties and diplomatic appointments.

[12] Just for the record: American military engagements in Grenada in 1983, Argentina in 1983, Panama in 1989, and Haiti in 1994 were completed before the sixty day deadline closed.

[13] One of the few incidents when Congress overrules a presidential veto.

[14] Scott 2002, 152.

[15] Scott, James / Carter, Ralph: Acting on the Hill - Congressional Assertiveness in U.S. Foreign Policy.

[16] 42.4% compliant and 28.4% “resistant” in the period of 1946-67. (Scott/Carter, p.159) CHART B

[17] “Statistically, there is a strong inverse relationship between congressional activity in foreign policy and the passage of time” (Scott/Carter, p.156f).

[18] To verify a secondary role of Congress, I would have to look at the same numbers of activity of the President. It is possible that this trend is a reflection of the total foreign policy activity.

[19] Assertiveness is defined as “refusal to comply with the administrations wishes” (Crabb, p.158).

[20] “Hence, statistically there is a strong positive relationship between congressional assertiveness in foreign policy and the passage of time.” (Crabb 2000, p.157).

[21] Encyclopedia of U.S. Foreign Relations, p.324.

[22] The suspension of rules is an internal fast track. It means there are no amendments and debating rules. The Speaker usually considers a suspension of rules when he can anticipate a two thirds majority.

[23] Of the 44 roll call votes on foreign policy of the 107th Congress, 1st session, at least 15 bills can be considered uncontroversial.

[24] Congress passed legislation over President Reagan's veto (!) to put the South-African Apartheid regime under economic sanctions.

[25] The amendments by Representative Boland first restricted and then ended military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels and imposed human rights restrictions on aid to El Salvador.

[26] The Senate and House voted with a wide margin supporting a policy, opposed by President Clinton, to lift the United Nations arms embargo against Bosnia.

[27] Also referred to as congressional veto.

[28] The Chada Supreme Court decision has degraded the kind of resolution that is objecting legislation to a joint resolution, which requires presidential approval. Since a presidential veto needs a two-third majority to overcome it is a useless tool in most the cases.

[29] Restricted by the Chada Supreme Court decision. (Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha 1983)

[30] Senator Fulbright’s televised Hearings on U.S.-Vietnam policy in the 1969s; the Iran-Contra Hearings in the mid-1980s are examples of Hearings as a mean to affect foreign policy.

[31] Several members run monthly newsletters on foreign policy issues for widespread distribution.

[32] Especially since the 1970s an increased number of lawsuits have been filed. Most of them claimed that congressional foreign policy prerogatives are being violated by the President. (McCormick, p.326.)

[33] An historic example is the participation of five members of Congress at the drafting of the U.N. Charter in San Francisco in 1945. A current example is the involvement of several Congressmen in the Columbian peace process.

[34] Good examples are HIRC oversight hearings, especially when the State Department presents its budget and the foreign policy preview for the coming fiscal year.

[35] After the opening ceremony one hour is open for any member to give one-minute-statements about any.

[36] Such as Face the Nation, Meet the Press, Larry King, Crossfire and other.

[37] Unfortunately McCormick presents no empirical data to underline his statement.

[38] McCormick 1997, 326.

[39] David R. Mayhew: America's Congress, Yale University Press 2000. p.103.


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Title: All politics is local - congressional decision-making in foreign policy