How Congress Can Take Back Foreign Policy

A Playbook for Capitol Hill

A joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, September 2007. Jim Bourg / REUTERS

On January 3, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump will face a new reality: a chamber of Congress controlled by the opposition party. Confronting a hostile Democratic House of Representatives will be a rude awakening for a president who chafes at any limits on his authority. For the first two years of his presidency, Trump experienced little resistance from the Republican-controlled Congress as he sought to disrupt the established international order. Republicans largely stood by as Trump withdrew from vital international agreements, embraced autocrats while giving allies the cold shoulder, used Twitter to threaten friends and foes alike, and discarded democracy and human rights as core values of U.S. foreign policy.

His free rein is over. Now that Democrats have taken power in the House of Representatives, Congress has a chance to influence the administration’s foreign policy. The Constitution gives Congress more authority over foreign affairs than most observers understand. It has the power of the purse, the power to declare war, and the power to regulate the armed forces, trade, and immigration. Congress can fund programs it supports and withhold money from those it doesn’t. It can block initiatives that require legislation and use investigations to expose and curtail executive-branch wrongdoing. And it can reach out to allies and admonish adversaries.

More recently, however, Congress’ ability to govern has been eroded by a variety of factors, including increased partisanship, a 24-hour news cycle made more toxic by social media, and a permanent campaign requiring ever more fundraising and the need for regular travel to home districts. Congress must now rise to the occasion in order to pursue a single overriding imperative: to defend American national interests and values from a dangerous president. To do so, Democrats will have to stay disciplined and united—and use the powers the Constitution grants them in ways they have not done in years. 


That Republicans in Congress have done little to rein in Trump should not be surprising. Their silence as Trump has

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