Congressional Administration of Foreign Affairs
58 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2019 Last revised: 16 Jan 2020
Date Written: March 1, 2019
Longstanding debates over the allocation of foreign affairs power between Congress and the President have reached a stalemate. Wherever the formal line between Congress and the President’s powers is drawn, it is well established that, as a functional matter, even in times of great discord between the two branches, the President wields immense power when he acts in the name of foreign policy or national security.
And yet, while scholarship focuses on the accretion of power in the presidency, presidential primacy is not the end of the story. The fact that the President usually “wins” in foreign affairs does not mean that the position the President ultimately chooses to take is preordained. Questions of foreign policy and national security engage diverse components of the executive branch bureaucracy, which have overlapping jurisdictions and often conflicting biases and priorities. And yet they must arrive at one executive branch position. Thus the process of decisionmaking, the weight accorded the position of any given decisionmaker, the context in which the decision is made—together these shape the ultimate position the President takes.
This Article explores and critiques the foreign policy role Congress can—and does—play in structuring and rearranging the relative powers of those internal actors, and the processes they take to reach their decisions, in order to influence and even direct the President’s ultimate position. Having yielded much of the ground on substance, Congress has an opportunity for a second bite at the apple, and may influence the policy directions of the presidency by manipulating its internal workings. There are risks to deploying “process controls,” as I term these measures, in lieu of direct substantive engagement, but I argue that Congress can and should use these tools more instrumentally to influence the course of foreign policy in areas where it is otherwise unlikely to assert itself as a coequal branch and necessary check on presidential power.
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