President, Congress, and public: a shared foreign policy role

IN crafting the Constitution, the Founding Fathers deliberately divided responsibility for the nation's foreign policy between the president and the Congress. It was a farsighted move aimed at preventing tyranny and encouraging responsive government. In practice, the foreign policy partnership, like its domestic counterpart, has worked well - though it has at times driven one branch or the other to exasperation.

How the division works: The president, who can make treaties and appoint ambassadors and top officials but only with Senate consent, is commander in chief of US military forces. Congress, which regulates commerce, has spending control and authority to declare war.

From the start, the president has been the senior partner; but the division of labor was never made too clear. The Constitution's framers wanted it that way: The tension in that pull for power, strong over the past 15 years, has kept US foreign policy lively and flexible.

Few issues have shifted the public focus so dramatically to the Constitution and its shared-powers concept as the current Iran-contra scandal has. Failure of the executive branch to report to Congress its secret diplomatic and arms-sale overtures to Iran, and the later diversion of profits to Nicaragua's contras, has intensified efforts on Capitol Hill to find more effective ways to check abuses of presidential power. This argument has been heard often before. Foreign policy powers were never intended to be the exclusive domain of any president. Most citizens expect Congress to hold a president accountable for the wisdom of his actions.

For most of the last 200 years, however, the president and his team have played the dominant foreign policy role. Until the 1970s Congress rarely challenged that dominance. Even in recent years the nation's lawmakers have scarcely quarreled with such broadly supported executive moves as the invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya. Still, in the wake of the decidedly less popular Vietnam war and Watergate, Capitol Hill has tried to strengthen its foreign policy leverage.

Today Congress is steering the nation's South African policy in a new direction by insisting, despite a presidential veto, on US economic sanctions.

The Reagan administration's diversion of Iran arms sale profits to the contras, defying a congressional ban against such aid and Congress's right to control spending, is emboldening Congress to cut off funds entirely to Nicaragua's rebels.

President Reagan's preoccupation with a Soviet ``threat'' and an arms buildup is leading Congress to link defense allocations to arms control progress.

The Defense Department's exaggerated spending demands have prompted Congress to write, in effect, its own defense budget for the last two years.

Unfortunately in some areas like the Middle East, neither the Reagan administration nor the Congress seems inclined to promote a peace offensive.

In trying to keep a tighter check on executive branch excesses, Congress has also written into law a variety of new consulting and reporting requirements.

One of the most controversial but significant of these is the War Powers Resolution of 1973. It requires the president to consult Congress in ``every possible instance'' before involving US armed forces in any hostilities. In an emergency, Congress must be told within 48 hours. A sunset provision requires any US troop involvement to end after 90 days unless Congress, by a majority vote, specifically approves a longer stay. For Congress such war powers replace its seldom-used constitutional power to ``declare war.'' No war was declared against either Vietnam or Korea, the major conflicts involving US troops the last four decades.

Congress's most recent war powers addition may not be constitutional. But no test of the point is likely. The Supreme Court has traditionally backed away from foreign policy disputes, viewing them as largely political. Yet the war powers legislation has worked effectively in practice. Congress's attempt to invoke its provisions after the US Marines were sent into Lebanon in 1982 helped provoke a national debate and to keep blame-laying to a mimimum after US troops were removed.

Now, with the Iran-contra affair in full swing, Congress has begun to strengthen its foreign policy role once again. Lawmakers may now insist they be notified before any covert foreign policy initiatives or troop action is taken. Congress may also adopt more sunset provisions; unlike bills subject to presidential veto, these would not require a two-thirds vote for Congress to get its way.

Some would argue that such curbs on executive power go well beyond the intent of the Constitution's drafters. Congress sees its efforts as an important part of the system of checks and balances. It is in any case the price the executive branch must pay for having kept Congress in the dark so long on the secret Iran-contra moves.

Strengthening Congress's hand in foreign policy has one decided advantage: It accords a larger role to American public opinion. Presidents often prefer to keep policy moves within a small circle. But history suggests that the most effective and durable foreign policy is generally that which has the broadest public support. This point goes to heart of a democratic system.

In surveying the 1986 foreign policy scene, the Founding Fathers might well be disappointed over the degree to which the US respects its treaties and other obligations under international law. Under the Constitution the more than 1,250 treaties approved by presidents and the Senate are considered as valid as any domestic law. Yet Congress makes little effort to see that the executive branch complies with its international obligations. The administration's defiance of the recent World Court ruling against it on the mining of Nicaraguan harbors, and varied US efforts to cut back on financial obligations to the United Nations, are cases in point. The Founding Fathers rightly viewed respect for treaties and other world legal obligations as essential.

The US Constitution, the model for most of the 160 others drafted since 1787 and the longest lasting of any, has been tested in the conduct of foreign policy. By and large, its insistence on shared government power and allowance for public opinion still serves the nation well. Third in a series

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