Washington — Mention the name of House Speaker Jim Wright to one middle-level State Department official, and the official grinds his teeth and curses. He uses words like ``irresponsible'' and ``capricious'' to criticize the Texas Democrat's key role in launching cease-fire negotiations between Nicaragua's contra rebels and the Sandinistas. But what bothers this bureaucrat most of all is the fact that Mr. Wright, the third-ranking official in the United States government, met last year with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and other Sandinista officials; the Reagan administration, as a matter of official government policy, had refused to talk to them.
``The President is supposed to set this country's foreign policy,'' the official fumes. ``I think Wright has set a pretty terrible precedent.''
Actually, Wright's controversial foray into Central American diplomacy fits into a pattern of increasing congressional involvement in the writing of US foreign policy. Since the end of the Vietnam war, Congress has demanded that the president consult with it closely when negotiating treaties or deploying troops overseas.
Now Congress has begun to take on a different role for itself. No longer are members of Congress content merely to voice opposition to official US policy. More than at any time in recent years, lawmakers seem eager to try, like Wright, to advance alternative policies of their own.
Since the last presidential election, Congress has compelled the White House to take a harder line on South Africa, persuaded President Reagan to support the ouster of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, and endeavored to force the US to stop testing nuclear weapons.
This year, over White House objections, Congress has tried to direct the US military to help stop the flow of illegal narcotics over US borders and has forced the administration to get tougher with Panama's strong man, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, than it wanted to. Senate Democrats have engaged the White House in a test of wills over the Senate's treaty interpretation powers, winning concessions that may put a crimp in the development of Reagan's cherished space-based Strategic Defense Initiative.
Moreover, in a virtually unprecedented step, Democrats in Congress have largely succeeded in cutting the administration out of the ongoing Central American peace process.
``When you have an administration that's weak, there's going to be a vacuum and people are going to try to fill that vacuum,'' says Rep. David Bonior (D) of Michigan, a key figure in the House Democratic leadership's successful effort to forge its own policy on Nicaragua. More to the point, observes Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California, ``we're beginning take the same approach to foreign policy issues as we do on domestic policy issues; we have our ideas, the administration has its ideas, and we see what happens.''
Increasingly, ``what happens'' is a political brawl. Politicians like to invoke the image of bipartisan solidarity when US troops are under fire - at least for a while. But divisions are never far from the surface and may be sharper than they ever have been in the post-Vietnam era. ``Bipartisanship in foreign policy is as dead as the do-do bird,'' says Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois.
This week, the Senate voted on a motion to trigger the 1973 War Powers Act, which mandates the withdrawal of US troops from an area in which ``hostilities'' are ``imminent'' within 90 days, unless Congress specifies otherwise. It was the seventh time the Senate had voted on the act since President Reagan announced plans last year to provide US naval escorts for 11 Kuwaiti tankers.
Like many congressional efforts to restrain a presidential foreign policy initiative, this week's effort to activate the War Powers Act failed. Indeed, the act has become something of an embarrassing symbol of congressional impotence in foreign policy making: Though it has provoked bitter fights between the executive and legislative branch, it has not been invoked to bring a single US soldier home.
``The simple fact is that it's very hard to get a bill passed by the Senate, then by the House, then through a conference, then past the president's signature. We just don't do all that very often,'' says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana. ``But that's what it takes for Congress to write its own foreign policy.''
The fact is, however, that a number of lawmakers brave the odds anyway and try to steer the ship of state themselves. ``It's really a continuation of some things that have been in play for a long time,'' says congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. In fact, many lawmakers have harbored a basic distrust of the nation's chief executives since they were misled by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s to believe that enemy troop strength in Vietnam was less than it was.
Distrust between the Congress and the President reached crisis proportions last year over the Iran-contra affair. Members of both House and Senate accused the Reagan White House of violating the Constitution by refusing to obey a law prohibiting US aid to the contras and failing to inform Congress that it was selling arms to Iran. Administration officials countered by questioning the constitutional legitimacy of Congress's foreign policy activism.
``It drove home the point that even when you say `no,' there are ways for the executive branch to get around it,'' Representative Panetta says. ``So in some members' minds it became clear that just saying `no' wasn't enough.''
Panetta and others believe this mind-set will outlast the Reagan era - unless the next president goes to trailblazing lengths to include congressional leaders in the planning stages of foreign policy initiatives. ``All the president needs to do is take the leaders, a few committee chairmen into a room, sit them down, and work out a policy,'' Panetta says. ``It's a human process - the same that it takes a Rotary Club to sell Christmas trees.''
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