Today the Senate and House Iran-contra committees resume public hearings with the testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North.
Serious questions about the public and even private conduct of major figures in the investigation have been raised. In response to the revelations that have occurred since we began our public hearings, and because of the rising and ever-expanding scandals, various defenders of the administration have sought to bring forward a number of "explanations" for actions taken by these figures.
One of the "explanations" that has been prominent over the past several weeks is that Congress -- and not the administration -- is indirectly responsible for the Iran-contra affair. That argument appears in a number of forms, but generally suggests that Congress created the policy muddle on Nicaragua through enactment of successive legislative restrictions (known popularly as the Boland Amendments), which were so contradictory and so confusing that the language could not be understood or enforced.
In this attempt to justify the actions taken by the administration, Congress is accused of betraying American commitments to the contras and now seeking to pillory those who sought to provide help to them.
This is simply not the case. I suggest that enactment of the series of Boland Amendments was a legitimate and constitutional exercise of the prerogatives of Congress to impose restraints and ultimately a prohibition on aid to the contras.
Clearly, recent history indicates that United States policy on Nicaragua did change. Congress did not, and does not, act in a vacuum, and in the series of Boland Amendments was responding to a succession of policy changes by this administration.
Evidence indicates clearly that the United States did make a commitment to the contra forces, and eventually, some two years after U.S. officials apparently told the contra leaders that they would back their "march to Managua," Congress did cut off the funds that supported that commitment.
However -- and this is the essential fact -- Congress was not told of that commitment. Initially, the intelligence committees were assured that the contras would interdict the flow of arms from Nicaragua to the rebels in neighboring El Salvador, using teams of from five to 10 men.
When contra forces grew to thousands, Congress raised a warning flag in the first Boland Amendment, which was an effort to hold the administration to its word while permitting interdiction to continue. Under terms of that first Boland Amendment, aid to the contras was not to be for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.
There never was any interdiction. Even then, Congress only restricted assistance to the contras to $24 million, while sending a clear message to slow down the growth of contra forces and end attacks on economic targets in Nicaragua.
Finally, after almost three years of trying to accommodate the administration, Congress cut off all aid to the contras. It is, I believe, evident that we took this action because of an extraordinary sense of frustration and because the members could no longer put any trust in administration statements. Most important, Congress took this action to cut off all aid to the contras because of the evident failure of administration policy in Nicaragua.
Congress cut off aid to the contras because what we were being told simply did not square with the facts. Even so, it was not just a failure of trust between the legislative and executive branches; it was not simply the mining of harbors that led to the Boland Amendment.
The Boland Amendment was developed and approved by Congress because the administration kept changing its justification for the contra aid program. First it explained it in terms of interdiction. Then the contra aid program was supposed to end the Sandinistas' export of revolution to their neighbors.
Later the administration sought to justify the contra aid program as necessary to force negotiations from a position of strength. And finally, the administration sought to demand internal changes within the Sandinista government.
Throughout, administration policy was set squarely on an ideological fault line. On the one hand, Congress was told that military pressure by the contras was the only way to bring the Sandinistas to the bargaining table. In nearly the same breath, we were told that no Marxist/Leninist dictatorship -- a term the president frequently applied to the Nicaraguan government -- had ever negotiated away its power and that, therefore, the communists would have to be forcibly removed.
Congress insisted on imposing ever more restrictive conditions on contra aid in Nicaragua. Yet no one, least of all Congress itself, would attribute to 435 members and 100 senators the paramount role in enunciating the foreign policy of the United States.
That role is reserved for the president. Congress, as a partner in the foreign policy process, serves as a check on the president's actions, not as a rival force.
But when the president is unwilling to resolve the inherent flaws in existing policy -- as was the case with contra aid -- or when a foreign policy simply does not work, Congress can be expected to take action.
This is what occurred in the enactment of the Boland Amendments. What few in Congress or the public expected, however, was that administration officials would seek to bypass Congress and circumvent the law when the administration could not persuade Congress to continue aid to the contras.
It is at this point that the question of what the Boland Amendment meant becomes critical. It is now suggested that no one can understand its terms and that no one knows to whom it applies.
Yet, during consideration of the Boland Amendment in the House, a strange phenomenon seems to have occurred. No one, either opponent or proponent, appears to have had any doubt about its meaning. It meant the end of United States assistance to the contras.
Not one hint of a constitutional objection was raised, either on the floor or by the president. No arguments of vagueness or overbreadth were heard either in Congress or from the administration.
Rather, administration statements center on the inadvisability of the cutoff and the president's determination to seek a restoration of funding. No statement was issued declaring that the statute did not apply to the National Security Council. On the contrary, Robert McFarlane, then the national security adviser and head of the NSC staff, stated unequivocally to the House Intelligence Committee that the Boland Amendment did apply to the NSC. Only recently have we begun to hear claims to the contrary suggesting that the Boland Amendment does not apply to the NSC or that the language was ambiguous.
Such political damage control is to be expected in the wake of a scandal. But because these issues were not raised at the time the Boland Amendment was enacted into law, Congress and the voters clearly felt that all aid had been cut off for the contras. Frankly, administration officials told Congress just that.
Finally, I want to focus attention on what I personally believe to be the essential task we face: restoring the constitutional process by which public policy is made in this country.
United States foreign policy cannot be executed and sustained unless the executive branch levels with both Congress and the public when it sees difficulties or uncertainties in faithfully executing the laws of the United States.
It would be far better for the country if the sort of argument we are now hearing about the Boland Amendment were raised when legislation is either considered in Congress or is before the president for signature into law. American foreign policy, if it is ever to become truly bipartisan and effective, must overcome such differences openly.
The only way to do that is by the honest confrontation of ideas and viewpoints, and not through a conspiracy and the secret evasion of statutory restraints, which leads to deliberate efforts to deceive and conceal such evasion from Congress and the American people.
Rep. Foley (D-Wash.) is the House majority leader and a member of the House Iran-contra committee.