President, Congress Need Dialogue
ON Jan. 20, for the first time in 12 years, both the White House and Congress will be under the control of the same party. The new president has promised to focus his attention on solving America's domestic problems. Yet the world will not stand still. It is clear that the next administration will need to devote considerable attention to foreign policy.
The foreign-policy roles of Congress and the president are not abstract issues for legal scholars. They are practical considerations essential to the making of good foreign policy and the effective function of government. The foreign policy of the United States clearly works best when the president and Congress work together.
The president is the chief architect of American foreign policy. Under the Constitution, he is the commander-in-chief. He has considerable authority to pursue the policies he chooses. The unity of the executive branch, its control of information, and the national security demands of the cold war gave - and still give - the president an unassailable preeminence in the making of foreign policy. Nevertheless, there are two important limits on a president's ability to act in foreign affairs - his time and th e Congress.
With respect to time, the president can only focus on a few foreign-policy issues. The decision as to which issues to focus upon is perhaps the president's most important one. That decision will determine his foreign-policy priorities and agenda.
With respect to Congress, the Constitution enumerates several powers. Congress is instructed to provide for the common defense, and it has the power to declare war. Congress has great influence over foreign policy because of its vast - but not total - control over the purse.
There are certain things Congress cannot do. It cannot conduct diplomacy. Diplomacy requires speed, flexibility, tact, secrecy, expertise, sustained interest, and strong leadership.
Congress brings other strengths to the making of foreign policy. It is a deliberative body. It is more accessible and serves several functions: It can help prevent error, provide new proposals, give all parties a voice, educate public opinion, and win public support for US foreign policy. A foreign policy cannot be sustained for the long haul without the support of the American people, and congressional backing is perhaps the most important test of that public support.
Consultation is the key to the president's relations with Congress. It has often been too little, too late. It has often meant notification of an action taken or about to be taken. Consultation over the last 12 years has rarely meant a genuine dialogue of seeking the views of Congress prior to the president making a decision or taking an action.
Inadequate consultation frustrates members of Congress because it reduces their opportunity to influence policymaking. It can lead to unnecessary conflict, additional congressional foreign-policy initiatives at variance with the executive branch, and attempts by the Congress to micro-manage programs and control policy implementation.
The Clinton administration has a unique opportunity to change this record and to lay the groundwork for more effective relations between Congress and the executive.
Consultation requires that Congress be given a legitimate opportunity to participate in the making of policy. It should start early, be bipartisan, and always include the congressional leadership. It should not be left to one or two individuals. The 535 members of the Congress cannot be reached by a handful of administration lobbyists. When meeting with members, a distinction should be made at the start as to whether the meeting is one in which members are to be informed or consulted.
The goal of consultation should be to obtain the advice of Congress before a final decision is made or an action is carried out. The president should always try to provide Congress with a range of policy alternatives. The president, the secretary of state, and the key deputies in the State Department and the National Security Council all have to be involved.
Consultation requires sustained contact with many members and committees in Congress. It involves a large commitment of time and resources. It needs special and probably separate units within the White House and the State Department dedicated to consultation.
Effective prior consultation, better information provided to the Congress, better education on the issues, and a deep respect for the shared foreign-policy powers provided in the Constitution are the best ways to "lubricate" the foreign-policy process. The president must recognize that Congress has a genuine place in the formulation of foreign policy. Congress must recognize that the executive branch has a need for flexibility in the execution of foreign policy - and in special cases, a legitimate concer n for secrecy.
Congress and the president will always interact as both adversaries and partners, and congressional activism in foreign policy will continue irrespective of who is in the White House. Yet, with adequate, prior consultation, Congress can come to be seen as the ally, not the foe, of the president in foreign affairs. Within the framework of effective prior consultation, the president should, and will, be given the initiative on foreign-policy matters.
The separation of powers produces a healthy and creative tension between the executive and the legislative branches. The process of making foreign policy will never be tidy and clear-cut, and our expectations should not be extravagant. But, through the process of consultation, dialogue, and debate a better foreign policy will emerge. The foreign-policy process provided in our Constitution works - if we understand it and use it with prudence and discretion.