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.
(Page 2 of 2)
Belnap holds that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Nixon, accused of abusing presidential war powers, were no more guilty of this charge than were Roosevelt and Truman. ``They behaved no more unconstitutionally than their predecessors. They were just less successful,'' he says.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Many foreign policy matters fall into what Louis Henkin of Columbia University Law School calls the ``twilight zone'' of jurisdiction, referring to foreign-policy situations where congressional and presidential authority overlap and where its distribution is unclear.
Professor Rubin says that a clear distinction must be made between the president's role as commander in chief and his warmaking power. Rubin explains that the Constitution gives Congress a clear check on the latter through the power of the purse.
He indicates that in the current Iran-contra crisis, if money was acquired without congressional authorization - with no accounting for receipts - a serious question must be raised over possible abuse of executive authority.
``The big problem in recent years is the exaggeration of presidential power,'' says Pat Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ``Congress has the wherewithal to use [power]. They like the prestige of being consulted. But they're usually willing for the buck to stop on the president's desk.''
``[Reagan] speaks for the nation,'' says Henkin. ``But it doesn't give him authority necessarily to either send troops or to spend money. To spend money he needs congressional authorization. He can't spend a penny which isn't authorized by Congress. That clearly [flies] in the face of the Constitution. And the same is true about sending troops.''
In recent years, Congress has occasionally flexed its muscles to curb executive action. For instance, it invoked the War Powers Resolution to compel President Reagan to withdraw US troops from Lebanon. The President, however, said he would have eventually done so anyway. And now federal lawmakers are conducting a full-blown investigation into the Iran-contra affair to determine, among other things, if there was presidential wrongdoing. HISTORICALLY, neither the US Supreme Court nor the World Court in The Hague has played a great role in determining the nation's foreign policy. ``The [US] courts duck political questions,'' says political scholar Thomas Cronin at Colorado College. And, he explains, the Supreme Court has tended to regard disputes between a president and Congress over foreign policy as a political issue. For example, when 29 congressmen brought suit against President Reagan in 1982 over Central America policy, the high court determined that Congress had the resources to investigate the matter itself.
The US snubbed the World Court when it refused to recognize the latter's jurisdiction in 1984 in cases involving Central America.
``Basically, it [the World Court] is an irrelevance,'' says legal expert Bruce Fein of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. ``We pay attention when we want to.''
Professor Rubin stresses, however, that the US has a ``great stake'' in the maintenance of international law. ``We can't isolate ourselves from the world. We can't go it alone,'' he adds. ``International law is not only a question of rights and duties but a question of distribution of authority.''
Through the years, attempts to change the US Constitution have included recommendations that would affect foreign policy. For example, the Committee on the Constitutional System, chaired by former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, recommended last month a relaxation in the requirement that treaties be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate - either by a constitutional amendment permitting ratification by a majority of each chamber or reducing the required Senate vote to 60 percent.
Presidential scholar James MacGregor Burns at Williams College would require a president to choose members of Congress for his Cabinet. Such appointees could not be dismissed, or ignored, because they would have been elected by the public. ``We need to establish institutionally close to the president people who will say `no' with authority,'' Professor Burns says.
Thomas Cronin stresses the need for greater presidential, congressional, and public responsibility. He scores recent chief executives (among them Johnson, Nixon, and now Reagan) for failing ``to set a tone for the foreign policy of the nation'' rather than pursuing their own political agendas.