Webcast Recap

Panelists:  Former Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), senior policy advisor, Akin Gump; David McKean, public policy scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; James M. Lindsay, senior vice president, Council on Foreign Relations; Gail Russell Chaddock, congressional correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor.

Congress does not pay close attention to foreign affairs; its oversight of the foreign policy establishment is sporadic and haphazard; and, when it does get involved, its decisions are usually driven more by politics than careful deliberation.  That was the consensus of a panel convened at the Wilson Center Oct. 17 on the topic, “Congress’ Influence on Foreign Policy: For Better or Worse?”

Former Senator John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), joked that people who say there’s no bipartisanship in Congress are wrong:  “The president doesn’t want Congress to meddle in foreign policy, but Democrats and Republicans on the Hill agree they should be involved.”  It’s just that they disagree from time to time on the best course to take, he added.  Most Americans want a “consensus-driven, unified foreign policy,” he said, “but the two parties in Congress sometimes have different points of view on foreign policy, just as the American people do.”

James M. Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed, saying, “politics shapes foreign policy.  Politics does not stop at the water’s edge,” as former Senator Vandenberg once suggested; “it never has and never will.”  We only get bipartisan foreign policy when the people are united; and when they are not united you get disagreement between the parties and between the Congress and the president.   In answer to the question posed by the title of the seminar, “for better or worse,” Lindsay said, “the answer is, ‘yes.’”  Congress influences foreign policy both directly and indirectly, he added.  It often places procedural regulations in legislation that are designed to change how decisions are made and produce desired outcomes.  Although the Founders intended for Congress to play a more direct role in foreign policy by enumerating such powers as declaring war and regulating commerce with other nations, Congress finds it more convenient to delegate many things to the executive, and that opens the door to shirking and blame avoidance when things go wrong.

Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar David McKean, former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cited constitutional scholar Edward Corwin’s maxim that the Constitution is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of making foreign policy. That means foreign policy making depends on “vigorous, combative debate,” McKean said.  But he agreed with Lindsay that in modern times, Congress is more likely to delegate its powers to the Executive than to originate policies.  Recognizing that reality, McKean said “the answer is oversight, oversight, oversight, which is necessary to keep mistakes from happening.”  But even on that front Congress’ record is poor.  “Very few Members attend oversight hearings to learn the facts, “he observed, and consequently “decisions are driven more by politics than informed judgment.”

Senator Sununu underscored that observation by noting that probably only five to ten percent of Members of Congress pay ongoing attention to foreign affairs, as opposed to doing so only when a foreign policy crisis or problem is in the news.  Sununu said there are four factors that influence Members’ attentiveness and involvement in foreign affairs.  One is personal background and interests which often relates to being part of an immigrant family.  Another is regional: Members from the two coasts usually have a greater interest in international events because of the concentrations of ethnic populations and the linkage to foreign commerce.  A third factor driving Members’ interests are committee assignments.  If you’re on the foreign affairs or armed services committees you naturally spend more time on international and security issues than if you are not.  Sununu said it often matters who the chairman and ranking minority member are and how they get along that sets the tone for the rest of the committee, citing Senators McCain and Levin on Armed Services and Senators Lugar and Kerry on Senate Foreign Relations as exemplars of bipartisanship.  The fourth factor that determines Members’ interest in foreign policy is events themselves thrusting themselves onto Congress’ agenda.  Members may not want to deal with those issues, but they have no choice but to engage when they are in the news and people are talking about them.

Gail Russell Chaddock who reports on Congress for The Christian Science Monitor, says the news media shares in the blame for the lack of interest in foreign affairs by the American people and their representatives in Congress.  She told of a colleague visiting from a another country who was appalled that one of the nightly network news broadcasts devoted less than two minutes to reporting on international events.  The two foreign issues that have been debated in Congress most recently were the three free trade agreements and the currency manipulation bill aimed at China.   “These issues are in the news for maybe two days while they are being debated,” she said, and then they vanish into thin air.  It’s hard to blame the American people for having short attention spans when the media gives so little coverage to persisting foreign policy problems. 

Chaddock said Members of Congress are partially to blame as well because they tend to shy away from taking positions on foreign policy matters for fear they will be used against them in political campaign ads that say, “Congressman X is more concerned about country Y than he is about America.”  The other problem, Chaddock noted, is that Members are in Washington for so little time each week that there is little opportunity for them to seriously engage with each other and discuss any policy problems, let alone foreign policy.  “They have little control over the amount of time they spend on any issue,” and foreign affairs is usually the least of their concerns.  Moreover, Members are unlikely to hire staff with foreign affairs expertise.  “They are more interested in staff who know how to man a war room”—the art of running a successful campaign for reelection.

When asked by an audience member how much influence lobbyists have on Members’ foreign policy views and decisions, the panel agreed that while lobbyists are valuable in providing information, Members get it from all sides on any issue, and that lobbyists tend to concentrate most on bolstering the positions of Members who already agree with them.