The almost-certain implementation of President Obama’s Iran deal despite heated opposition from most congressional Republicans and some Democrats is yet more evidence that, when it comes to major decisions of US foreign policy, it is the White House that runs the game.
Congress sits in the audience and cheers or boos. But it seldom has any profound effect on the outcome of the action.
And if anything, the influence of Capitol Hill on the nation’s diplomacy and military action may be declining in today’s highly partisan age.
It isn’t obvious from the nation’s founding documents that the competing powers of the branches of government should lead to that result. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, after all. The Senate participates in the ratification of treaties. The power of the purse offers lawmakers a way to try and influence a wide range of foreign policy decisions.
But in general, the unitary nature of the presidency allows it to make decisions and react to fast-moving foreign events while the legislature is still debating how to pull its boots on.
“This is simply an arena of policy that works to the commander-in-chief’s advantage,” wrote Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, earlier this year.
Occasionally, Congress has taken command of the nation’s diplomacy. After World War I, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, keeping the US out of the League of Nations. In 1999, the Senate similarly blocked US accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
But take the Obama administration’s bombing campaign against the Islamic State. Congress hasn’t voted to explicitly approve it. Instead, the bombing is being conducted pursuant to an authorization of use of force that lawmakers passed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
Both Republican and Democratic legislators would prefer that not be the case. They would like to move a newer war resolution. But after months of hearings and back-room wrangling they couldn’t agree on wording. Some wanted to authorize a full use of force, including the possible presence of US military boots on the ground. Others had a much narrower vision. So the push for a new resolution has produced nothing.
Such partisan gridlock has similarly reduced congressional influence on slower-moving foreign developments. The deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program developed over months of negotiations. Almost to a person, Congress complains that it should have been tougher. But it became a partisan issue, particularly after House Republicans invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce it at a joint meeting of Congress. As it became more overtly political, even some Democrats with reservations about its requirements lined up behind the White House.
Eventually Congress approved a complicated review process that gave substantial power to the Democratic House and Senate minorities. For President Obama to win, all his party needed to do was maintain just enough cohesion to uphold an expected Obama veto of a disapproval resolution.
But they won’t even have to go that far, apparently. On Thursday, Senate Democrats blocked the GOP’s effort to reject the deal. A procedural vote on a resolution of disapproval fell two votes short of the 60 needed to proceed.
The White House was quick to declare final victory.
“This vote is a victory for diplomacy, for American national security, and for the safety and security of the world,” said Mr. Obama in a statement.
Republican opponents vowed to fight on.
“This is a bad deal with decades-long consequences for the security of the American people and our allies. And we’ll use every tool at our disposal to stop, slow and delay this agreement,” said House Speaker John Boehner following the Senate vote.
In truth, it seems to be all over but the suing. Some House Republicans are urging a lawsuit to try and block the accord. Speaker Boehner has said that’s “an option that is very possible.”
Thus the Iran deal will stand as a major victory of President Obama’s second term, perhaps his signature accomplishment. Or that designation might go to the administration’s reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years. That’s another foreign policy move on which Congress had little-to-no influence.
Recognition of governments is something over which the president does have unilateral power. The Supreme Court affirmed that earlier this year on a 5-to-4 vote, ruling that the White House did not have to give US citizens born in Jerusalem the option of listing “Israel” as their place of birth on an American passport. (Why was that an issue? It’s complicated. For decades, US presidents have said the status of Jerusalem must be determined by Israeli-Palestinian agreement, which needless to say hasn’t happened.)
This is an issue on which the US must “speak with one voice,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion. “That voice must be the president’s.”
However, there is at least one presidential aspirant who has long said the White House advantage on foreign policy should be rolled back. It’s too easy for the Oval Office to drag the US into misbegotten wars, in this person’s view. Congress should resume its rightful role as the check and balance on the nation’s overseas adventures, he says.
“One hopes Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – can regain the wisdom to reassert the authority that was so wisely given to it so many years ago,” he wrote in 2013 in a lengthy National Interest piece on the subject.
That would be former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who served as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and later opposed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.