Webcast Recap

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.); Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.); Christopher Deering, Professor of Political Science, George Washington University; Karen De Young, Associate Editor, The Washington Post

Presidents don't consult with Congress enough on foreign policy decisions; and Congress does not conduct sufficient oversight of an administration's foreign policies. That was the consensus of two prominent members of Congress at a May 18 seminar cosponsored by the Wilson Center's Congress Project and Division of International Security Studies. Both agreed, however, it was too early to tell whether those patterns will change under the new administration of President Barack Obama with a Congress controlled by his own political party.

Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) also agreed that individual members of Congress can make a difference in the country's foreign policies, but that works best if there is bipartisan cooperation and the efforts are tied to appropriations bills.

"The power of the purse is Congress' most effective tool for influencing administration policies," Van Hollen said. Individual foreign policy bills have a more difficult time of it given their lack of urgency, the Senate filibuster, and the fact they are easier for a president to veto.

Rep. Wolf said that when he was first elected to Congress in 1980, the only country he had visited was Canada. He received a call from Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) who had just returned from Ethiopia and who urged Wolf to go there to witness the tragic famine for himself.

"It was a life changing experience for me," Wolf said. When he returned to the U.S. he called his neighbor, White House counselor Ed Meese, and asked him to make an appointment with President Ronald Reagan to discuss what he had seen. "Even though it was just before Christmas, the president agreed to see me. As a result of our conversation, the administration began to provide immediate food assistance to Ethiopia."

Wolf said he has been involved in numerous human rights and religious freedom controversies around the globe ever since, from Kosovo and Tibet, to Darfur and Egypt. Wolf said the key to success is persistence and education, and using the appropriations process to get an administration's attention. Members should not be afraid to travel to trouble spots to see for themselves what is needed, even if they are discouraged by the administration from doing so.

"I feel very strongly that members of Congress have a moral responsibility to determine what needs to be done because we are just as much a part of the government as the president is," he said.

Van Hollen, who had worked as a staff member to former Senator Charles McMathias (R-Md.) and subsequently on the Senate foreign relations committee staff, said senators have other powerful tools to influence foreign policy. One is the confirmation process for executive branch personnel and ambassadors. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was a master at putting holds on certain appointments to leverage foreign policy changes he wanted. Another obvious device the Senate has is the ability to reject or not consider treaties submitted by a president. He noted that there were 28 treaties still pending before the Senate that had never been ratified, including the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty for nuclear weapons.

Both members agreed that Pakistan and Afghanistan will loom large for this Congress as the president steps up U.S. involvement there. There is already a group of about 50 House Democrats who are pushing back and calling for an exit strategy from Afghanistan and who voted against the recent supplemental money bill for Iraq and Afghanistan. Van Hollen is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and said has introduced legislation to establish "Reconstruction Opportunity Zones" in troubled border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to spur development.

U.S.-Cuba relations are another area, said Van Hollen, where some members want to go beyond what the president has authorized (unlimited visits by Cuban-Americans to their homeland), by lifting the travel ban for all Americans. Public opinion is changing toward Cuba since the end of the Cold War as is sentiment among new generations Cuban-Americans, and this is reflected in changing attitudes in the Congress. Still, the Cuban Americans in Congress, though small in number, are a powerful force. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) managed to delay for awhile the omnibus spending bill earlier this year over his objections to loosening restrictions on Cuba until he won certain concessions from the administration.

Professor Christopher Deering of George Washington University's political science department said one reason Congress does not play a more prominent role on foreign policy matters is a lack of interest and sufficient knowledge about such issues. This tends to reflect the interest levels of members' constituents in foreign affairs. The exceptions arise if there is a large ethnic concentration in a member's district that pays attention to their former homeland or if individual members or informal caucuses take a particular interest in an issue.

Deering noted the variety of tools Congress has to influence foreign policies, including oversight, appropriations riders, confirmation hearings, and floor debates. But it is very rare, he said, for Congress to take any bold foreign policy initiatives that diverge from administration policy. Congress is more likely either to abdicate its powers to the executive altogether or tinker with administration policies at the edges.

Karen De Young, associate editor of the Washington Post and a former foreign correspondent used a case study of Congress' efforts two years ago, when the Democrats came to power, to change U.S. policy and military involvement in Iraq. The president vetoed the first bill that called for a troop withdrawal deadline, but later signed a bill that contained benchmarks to measure the progress of the Iraqi government.

The problem, De Young noted, was that when the Iraqis did not measure-up, "the president changed the goal posts, and the benchmarks were soon forgotten." Congress is not properly organized to maintain consistent and persistent pressure on an administration to change its policies.

"Congress is us," she observed. "Too easily distracted and not interested in the merits of foreign policy alternatives."

By Don Wolfensberger