The Missing Branch: A Blueprint for Bold Congressional Leadership on Foreign Policy

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By Andrew Jarocki

Nothing is more dangerous than an unchecked executive. What does the Russian occupation of the Crimea and Chinese bullying in the South China Sea have in common? Both are violent adventurism at the whim of one unchecked leader. Unfortunately, the United States increasingly suffers from this dangerous temptation as well. Presidents of both parties since the turn of the century have enjoyed relatively weak congressional resistance to starting or expanding the US role in conflicts throughout the world. Congress must take a more assertive role in checking and balancing the president to ensure a carefully deliberated foreign policy. The People’s Branch can begin to right this wrong with three key priorities: AUMF reform, arms sales oversight and increased frequency of congressional hearings.

The 2001 Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress granted the president the discretion to use force against any entity “he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” Since passage, the AUMF has enabled unforgettable American aggression abroad. Following President Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama relied on the AUMF to justify drone strikes throughout the world. The Trump administration invoked the same 2001 legislation to explain American logistical support for Saudi involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Most recently, talk of war with Iran floated about due to Iran’s alleged ties to Al-Qaeda. Should anyone still doubt the Commander-in-Chief’s current broad freedom to make war, one must remember the President launched 59 missiles into Syria in 2017 without a single member of Congress voting on the matter. This makes the administration’s recent allusions of war with Iran all the more chilling.

Efforts to repeal or reform the 2001 AUMF have steadily gained momentum in Congress. In the House, the newly formed War Powers Caucus seeks to “reclaim Congress’s Article 1 war powers” and “end our nation’s involvement in vaguely defined, open-ended conflicts.” Meanwhile, bipartisan efforts in the Senate to reform the AUMF (such as Senator Kaine and Senator Flake’s 2017 bill) have been unable to overcome the threat of a presidential veto. It is understandable that future presidents will argue they need to be able to act decisively without limiting options to protect the homeland. However, Congress should write new binding language to update and narrow the parameters of any chief executive’s use of force that lacks an explicit declaration of war. In an era when the newest iPhone is never more than a few months away, it is concerning that a resolution based on 18-year-old conditions still allows one individual to essentially decide the nation’s use of force.

Even before creating new legal means of oversight, Congress must also stick up for the existing rules. The exportation of American arms and military technology to any country is an obviously momentous decision, and all such sales are legally required to undergo congressional review. The executive branch has begun to chip away at this check as well. Secretary of State Pompeo invoked an emergency clause in 2017 to approve 22 arm sales to multiple Middle Eastern countries. The administration argued that the necessity to arm allies against Iranian aggression outranked legal procedure. Congress, rightly furious at the attempt to sidestep oversight, voted to reject the deals. However, Congress once again was unable to overcome a veto from the White House. If Congress wishes to remain a relevant institution, members of both parties must rise about partisanship to vote on principal to reject any deal which flouts the legally required oversight.  Members of Congress should be confident in requiring an extensive justification for arms deals. A 2019 Chicago Council survey found that just 9% of Americans think arms sales make America safer, while an overwhelming 70% are deeply skeptical of the merits.

Beyond arm sales and the use of force, Congress must carry out more probing oversight of all elements of foreign policy. Linda Fowler of Foreign Affairs has found that the yearly number of total public hearing days in Congress on national security has halved since the 1970’s. The less often that Congress requires top officials to explain their thinking to the nation in hearings, the more likely it is that Congress will be kept out of the decision-making process by future administrations on national security matters. It is understandable that members of Congress may prefer to spend more time back home, campaigning on issues like jobs and healthcare that are much sexier than foreign policy. But, put simply, this stuff matters. In 2018 alone, the US government authorized more than $180 billion in arms sales, American soldiers died in far flung nations like Niger, and $56 billion was spent in one year alone on the on-going war in Afghanistan. Congress owes it to the armed forces, taxpayers and every citizen to ensure that it is well informed and involved in crafting a worthwhile foreign policy vision. This requires the unglamorous work of patient hearings full of tough questions on the status quo.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Congress is the worst branch for overseeing foreign policy except for all the other ones. Prone to squabbling, partisanship and sloth, it is easy to see in Congress why the executive branch has preferred to ask for forgiveness instead of permission when acting around the world. However, a clearly defined American role in the world and the use of American blood and treasure to accomplish it requires the careful deliberation only the legislative branch can provide. Only when Congress takes back the reigns of foreign policy will the national interest become truly national.


Andrew Jarocki is a senior studying Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He has worked in both Congressional offices and campaigns. He hails from Duluth, Minnesota, and loves a good debate about gerrymandering.






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