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March 28, 2014 2:34 pm

Congressional Muscle and U.S. Foreign Policy

avatar by Yoram Ettinger


The United States Senate.

On March 5, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 410-1 to upgrade Israel from a “major non-NATO ally” to a “major strategic partner” — significantly expanding the mutually beneficial U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation in the areas of missile defense, intelligence, national security, technology, energy, cyber security, irrigation, space satellites, defense industries and more.

The Senate is expected to overwhelmingly support the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014, highlighting the systematic bi-cameral, bi-partisan consensus support of Israel by the U.S. constituent and its most authentic representative, Congress, the independent, equal, co-determining branch of the U.S. government.

When Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, was asked by the Navy secretary to rescind an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill — upgrading the port of Haifa facilities for the Sixth Fleet — the senator responded: “According to the U.S. Constitution, the Subcommittee on Defense supervises the Department of the Navy, and not vise versa.” The amendment remained intact, in defiance of the administration, enhancing the operations of the Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean.

Asked to support initiatives of Democratic presidents, based on partisan loyalty, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), an arch-defender of congressional power, stated: “I am the obedient servant of the Constitution, not the president.”

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Asked whether then-President Bill Clinton was guaranteed the backing of the 1993 Democrat-controlled House and Senate, House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) advised: “The president should not take congressional support for granted, because our political life expectancy is different than his.” Ignoring Foley’s advice during Clinton’s initial two years in office led to the devastating Democratic defeat in the 1994 mid-term election.

Following a meeting with an Israeli dignitary, who contended that the president was supreme in the area of foreign policy, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) quipped: “Yoram, didn’t you tell our distinguished guest that the U.S. is not a monarchy?”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the inherently pro-Israel Congress possesses the muscle to check, defy, oversee, overrule, direct, fund and withhold funds from the administration, including in the arenas of foreign policy and national security. Congress prefers to focus on district, state and national domestic priorities, which preoccupy the constituency and, therefore dominate the congressional re-election process. Congress tends to be deferential to the president on external issues, but reveals formidable muscle when presidents assume an overly imperial posture, outrageously usurping power, disregarding Congress, violating laws, pursuing strikingly failed policies, or dramatically departing from public consensus (as in Vietnam, Watergate and Irangate).

The power of the U.S. legislature is unique among Western democracies. It reflects the intent of the founding fathers to secure civil liberties by highlighting the centrality of the constituent and precluding excessive executive power, by constraining unilateral presidential maneuverability. Hence, the fundamental tenets of limited government, the separation of shared, overlapped and conflicting power, an elaborate system of checks and balance (treaty ratification, confirmation of senior appointments, veto and veto override), the congressional power of the purse, oversight, declaration of war, establishment/abolishment of executive departments and agencies, impeachment, and more. The president proposes, but Congress disposes. The president is the commander-in-chief, but only as authorized and appropriated by Congress.

Moreover, congressional independence is bolstered by prescribing House members and senators — as well as governors — a different constituency, term, timetable and agenda than those assigned to the president. Thus, the president, constrained by a two-term limit, rushes to accomplish his nationwide agenda within four to eight years. On the other hand, House members and senators benefit from two- and six-year unlimited terms, which enable them to adopt a long-term, gradual approach, advancing their district and state-wide agendas, which may not be consistent with the president’s national agenda and timetable.

For example, on Feb. 17, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama reluctantly vetoed a U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israel’s settlement policy, due to pressure exerted by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. The Senate defied both Clinton and Obama, refusing to ratify the 1999 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) foiled Obama’s attempts to close down the Guantanamo detention camp.

In 2009, House and Senate bi-partisan leadership prevented the appointment of Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, because of Freeman’s close business and political ties with China and Saudi Arabia. Congress ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam (the Eagleton, Cooper and Church amendments), Angola (the Clark Amendment) and Nicaragua (the Boland Amendment); overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto and brought down the white regime in South Africa; halted the supply of AWACs to Iran on the eve of the Khomeini revolution; overhauled the U.S. intelligence (Church/Pike Committees); and forced the USSR/Russia (Jackson-Vanik amendment in defiance of the president) to allow the emigration of one million Jews to Israel.

In 1957, bi-partisan congressional leadership (especially Senators Lyndon Johnson and William Knowland) was about to force President Dwight D. Eisenhower to refrain from imposing sanctions on Israel unless it withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula. However, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion pulled the rug from under the feet of Congress, by announcing full withdrawal. In 1990-1992, Senators Inouye, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Bob Kasten (R-Wis.) initiated a series of amendments, expanding U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, despite presidential opposition.

While a congressional challenge to presidential foreign and national security policies constitutes an uphill battle, Congress has demonstrated its ability to flex effective muscle, especially when it comes to an issue — such as Israel — that benefits from bi-partisan, bi-cameral, consensus support.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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