Congressional Muscle and US Foreign Policy

“Israel Hayom”,, March 28, 2014

On March 5, 2014, the US House of Representatives voted 410:1 to upgrade Israel from a “Major Non-NATO Ally” to a “Major Strategic Partner” – a congressional initiative, significantly expanding the mutually-beneficial US-Israel strategic cooperation in the areas of missile defense, intelligence, national security at-large, technology, energy, cyber security, irrigation, space satellites, defense industries, etc.  The Senate is expected to overwhelmingly support the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014, highlighting the systematic bi-cameral, bi-partisan consensus support of Israel by the US constituent, and therefore by its most authentic representative: Congress - the independent, co-equal, co-determining branch of the US government.

For instance, when Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, was asked by the Secretary of the Navy 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 US 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 flank of the Mediterranean.

When requested to support initiatives of Democratic presidents, based on partisan loyalty, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), who was an arch-defender of congressional power, stated: “I am the obedient servant of the Constitution, not the President!” 

When asked whether President Clinton was guaranteed the backing of the 1993 Democrat- controlled House and Senate, Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) 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-ME) quipped: “Yoram, didn’t you tell our distinguished guest that the US is not a monarchy?!”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the inherently pro-Israel Congress possesses the muscle to check, defy, oversee, overrule, direct, fund and defund 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 reelection process. Therefore, 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 (e.g., Vietnam, Watergate, Irangate).

The power of the US 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 (e.g., 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, etc.. 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 – 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 nation-wide agenda within 4-8 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 agenda, which may not be consistent with the President’s nation-wide agenda and timetable.

For example, on February 17, 2011, Obama reluctantly vetoed a UN Security Council condemnation of Israel’s settlements 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. Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV) 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 US military involvement in Vietnam (the Eagleton, Cooper and Church amendments), Angola (the Clark Amendment) and Nicaragua (the Boland Amendment); overrode 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 US intelligence (Church/Pike Committees); and forced the USSR/Russia (Jackson-Vanik amendment in defiance of the president) to allow emigration of one million Jews to Israel; etc..

In 1957, bi-partisan congressional leadership (especially, Senators Lyndon Johnson and William Knowland) was about to force President Eisenhower to refrain from imposing sanctions on Israel, unless it withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula. However, Prime Minister Ben Gurion pulled the rug from under the feet of Congress, by announcing full withdrawal.  In 1990-92, Senators Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Bob Kasten (R-WI) initiated a series of amendments, expanding US-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 capability to flex effective muscle, especially when it comes to an issue – such as Israel – which benefits from bi-partisan, bi-cameral, consensus support.