Iran-contra affair prompts 200-year-old question: Who's in charge of foreign policy? The Constitution sets up some guidelines. But our dealings with other countries are increasingly complex. As a result, the lines that separate Congress's role from that of the president have blurred.
THE Iran-contra affair has put a new focus on the historic question of the balance of power within the United States constitutional system. From the start, Congress has been a reluctant partner in the Reagan administration's efforts to fund the contra rebels, who are fighting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. But that opposition has grown since the White House disclosed last November that the administration had sold arms to Iran covertly, and that certain officials later attempted to divert profits from the arms sales to the contras without going through Congress.Skip to next paragraph
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Congressional committees are investigating whether any of the administration's secret activities were illegal or a violation of constitutional checks on executive authority.
``We need separation of powers,'' stresses Alfred Rubin of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. ``We don't have a parliamentary system. And we don't have a king. We restrict what the President can do as a party leader. And we don't want [him] to co-opt Congress.''
Interviews with constitutional lawyers, historians, political scientists, and foreign policy specialists show that:
The president - as provided by the Constitution - continues to be the central figure in the design and practice of foreign policy. But the Iran controversy has heightened debate over how best to check presidential power and provide accountability for Oval Office action.
Although Congress wants greater oversight of the US's international actions, it has exhibited little willingness to show a strong hand in crises. Critics say this is because legislators worry that they might not be reelected if a congressional policy proved unpopular.
The Supreme Court, and lower courts, shy away from reviewing most disputes between a president and Congress over foreign affairs. When they do accept jurisdiction, they lean heavily toward presidential authority. The high court, one expert points out, is presidentially appointed, and its members often come from executive backgrounds. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, for example, served in the Nixon administration's Justice Department.
Government spokesmen say they heed the principles of international law. But the Reagan administration has often backed away from allowing international bodies such as the World Court and the UN to test the legality of its policies, particularly if it appeared that those judgments would conflict with what the administration regards as national priorities.
Studies abound that recommend ways to alter constitutional structures and procedures for carrying out foreign policy. But actual reform, through constitutional amendment or even changes in practice, is a slow process.
The tug of war between the President and Congress over authority in international affairs dates back to George Washington. But the intricacies of modern foreign policy initiatives, particularly those involving less than all-out war and responses to terrorism, have greatly blurred lines of jurisdiction between the executive and legislative branches.
Actually, constitutional analysts say, the lines were never clear. The Founding Fathers set some specific guidelines in the Constitution. They made the president commander in chief of the Army and Navy. The chief executive was also given the power to conclude treaties and appoint ambassadors, with the consent of the Senate. Congress, on the other hand, has the authority to declare war and holds the purse strings that govern the funding of US foreign military involvements.
But even these constitutional mandates have been altered by practice and have been interpreted differently by various presidents. Circumstances have determined how the nation views the use of war powers, says Michael Belnap, professor of history at the University of Georgia. Professor Belnap explains that President Roosevelt exerted extensive ``war powers'' up to, and during, World War II - ``reducing congressional declaration of war [against Japan] to little more than a formality.''
And President Truman, without consulting Congress, writes Belnap in a bicentennial chronicle of the American Political Science Association, simply ordered US troops into combat against North Korea after the latter's attack on South Korea. He later explained that ``he had to act as commander in chief.'' PRESIDENTS Johnson and Nixon were sharply criticized for sending military units to Vietnam without congressional authority. This action triggered the War Powers Resolution - passed by Congress over President Nixon's veto in 1973. The resolution requires the president in every possible instance to consult with Congress before introducing armed forces into hostilities.