Courtesy Reuters

Foreign Policy and the Democratic Process: Congress in Foreign Policy: Who Needs It?

Congress has asserted its authority in foreign policy over the last dozen years. Is this phenomenon temporary or permanent? Good or bad? Workable or not? The thesis here is that active congressional participation is both desirable and unavoidable, and that the executive and Congress share responsibility for making it constructive rather than otherwise. To the degree that this joint effort fails, so does our democracy.


The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution may have marked the apogee of executive authority in foreign affairs in our time. Adopted in 48 hours almost without a challenge on the basis of inadequate information from the White House, it had the practical effect of a declaration of war. By 1966, however, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had begun hearings to probe America's role in the Vietnam War. Public reaction to the war, diffuse and chaotic at first, found an institutional expression through the Congress and thereby accelerated Congress' resurgence. Although the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was repealed in 1971, it took until 1973 for Congress to mandate American disengagement in Vietnam. That same year Congress adopted the War Powers Resolution over a Nixon veto. The War Powers Resolution gave formal affirmation to Congress' growing sense of its own responsibilities in foreign affairs. In 1974 Congress embargoed U.S. arms shipments to Turkey in the name of the law. In 1975, Congress vetoed the executive's covert intervention in Angola. In 1975 and 1976 an investigation of U.S. foreign intelligence activities generated continuing efforts to ensure congressional oversight of the CIA.

The pace and intensity of these developments was heightened by concurrent forces - partisanship, with a Democratic Congress increasingly anxious to pin responsibility for the Vietnam debacle on a Republican White House; the Watergate break-in, the Saturday Night Massacre and related events; an era in which U.S. foreign policy seemed frequently to be made in secrecy and executed by surprise.

Anyone who thought a change of Administration and party in the White House in 1976 would restore the status quo ante has been disappointed. The

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