Ever since passage of the War Powers Resolution in 1973, the White House has been complaining about Congress' hobbling, hampering and frustrating the president on foreign policy.
There's something to the charge, but only up to a point. As the recent vote on the government's proposed sale of uranium fuel to India shows, the administration still usually gets its way. The record also shows that when Congress has prevailed, more often than not it has had a case as good or better than the executive's.
Actually, in the half-dozen years since the War Powers Resolution was enacted to restrain presidents from further imperious military involvements like Vietnam, the new accommodation between the executive and legislative branches has been, on balance, surprisingly constructive. It would be hard to cite many instances in which the best interests of the country have been seriously jeopardized by the congressional challenges, and its insistence on open decisions openly arrived at.
Prof. Edwin Corwin long ago noted that the Constitution was "an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy," but that can be good as well as bad when the struggle is carried on responsibly, as was the case in the clash over nuclear fuel for India.
Both sides debated conscientiously, with a minimum of partisanship and demagoguery. The administration argued effectively that rejection of the sale would violate a 1963 agreement with India, alienate that country at a critical moment, and weaken the president's hand " in dealing with the entire situation in Southwest Asia."
Congressional opponents also had a persuasive case. They contended the shipment would compromise U.S. laws against the spreading of nuclear weapons because India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974, had rejected full international inspections of its atomic facilities, and had refused to say it would not produce nuclear weapons.
In the showdown, the president lost an 8-to-7 vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but finally won a 48-to-46 victory in the full Senate. He carried the day because both the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Frank Church, and the ranking Republican member, Sen. Jacob Javits, supported the administration, with Church saying it was such a "close question" that the president should be given the benefit of the doubt.
That sentiment has frequently prevailed on other issues, despite the new aggressiveness of Congress. Carter even won the necessary two-thirds majority in the stiff fight over the Panama Canal treaties. Although SALT II is stilll in limbo, it will be reviewed if Carter is reelected, and it is a good bet that it will get a sizable majority.
The problem is that treaties require two-thirds approval for ratification. Many constitutional scholars think that provision calls for amendment. It is one of the reasons it is harder for presidents to promote peace than to make war. It's why Woodrow Wilson couldn't get ratification of the League of Nations, and why Carter had to back off SALT II.
Nevertheless, Carter has won his tests, with Congress on Rhodesian sanctions, on lifting the embargo on weapons to Turkey, on the sale of F14 jets to Saudi Arabia, on terminating our defense treaty with Taiwan and on rejecting the B1 bomber.
In nearly every instance, Congress had a legitimate case; yet, in the clutch, it yielded to the executive. The most notable assertions of congressional will were its prohibiting reinvolvement in the Vietnam war and stepped-up intervention in Angola, as proposed by Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Who today would fault Congress for that?
Still, our presidents keep on complaining about congressional "meddling," even though it was inspired by arrogant and secretive presidential interventions such as the ones in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Bay of Pigs and the Dominican Republic.
Former President Nixon's attorney general said it was "not the proper posture for anybody to correct the president of the U.S." Nixon called the War Powers Resolution unconstitutional, but Congress passed it over his veto, and it remains the law today.
The act requires the president to consult with Congress in a military emergency, both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have shown that it can be circumvented. Ford bypassed Congress in using armed force in the Mayaguez seizure, just as Carter ignored Congress in the raid to rescue the hostages in Iran. Congress grumbled, but did little more, since both initiatives were quickly terminated, albeit with loss of American lives.
Thomas L. Hughes, president of the Carnegie Peace Endowment, asks: "Can a responsible foreign policy survive the continual congressional assault on presidential powers? Is the separation of powers between the executive and Congress compatible with reliability in foreign policy?" Experience seems to suggest the answer is "yes," providing both parties pay each other due respect.