Less than Meets the Eye: Foreign Policy Making and the Myth of the Assertive Congress

In This Review

Less than Meets the Eye: Foreign Policy Making and the Myth of the Assertive Congress

By Barbara Hinckley
University of Chicago Press, 1994
252 pp. $34.95
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Purdue University political science professor Barbara Hinckley, winner of the American Political Science Association's prize for the best book on the presidency published in 1992, Follow the Leader, here takes on the widely held view that since Vietnam and Watergate the Congress has asserted itself in its constant struggle with the president and taken over foreign policy. Hinckley offers facts, graphs, statistics, vote counts, newspaper coverage, and other sources to document her view that the apparent struggle for control is mostly illusion.

She writes: "We find agendas filled with highly selective debates and symbolic issues, with demands for reports that are not read and tough restrictions with built-in escape provisions. The two branches support each other in this symbolic display, staging dramatic last-minute compromises or complaining about each other's usurpation or meddling. Officials hotly contest the restrictions and then invoke the escape clauses -- routinely, year after year."

The War Powers Act is her favorite example. Written with passion, made into law by Congress when it decisively overrode President Nixon's veto, the law is all sound and fury. Congress has never used it effectively and almost certainly never will. Hinckley's point is that this is exactly what the authors of the law wanted.

Hinckley argues that when changes in foreign policy are made they come from the bureaucrats at State, Commerce, Agriculture, and other departments, plus the CIA. But only major changes in the outside world, such as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and all that it symbolized, can enable the bureaucrats to overcome the inertia of the past and put a new policy in place.

She challenges lots of Washington assumptions. "Neither the president nor Congress is as busy as it might seem," she writes. Congress has imaginative ways of seeming to be active, including "passing symbolic and nonbinding resolutions, calling for more information on issues it cannot make decisions on, and passing restrictions on authorizations that do not in fact restrict."

The less important the issue, the hotter the debate, as with the contras in Nicaragua. Here she sees the "deceive-and-forgive syndrome" at work. "When the [congressional] committees discovered funds were being sought elsewhere to evade the congressional prohibition [on aid to the contras], they were outraged. They received an admission that they had been deceived and an apology. When they later found out that the Nicaraguan harbors had been mined without their consultation, they were again outraged. Again they received an apology. They would later discover, during the Iran-contra hearings, that they were still being lied to about the diversion of funds and other activities. All this time the committee was actively conducting hearings and being briefed." (Italics in original). In sum, a thoughtful book with a new point of view that is well worth reading.

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