Presidents, and other citizens, tend to forget that the nation's founders did not intend to create a system that makes it easy to govern. The Constitution was designed to provoke controversy, to force the president and Congress to bargain over the control of power, in order to prevent tyrannical rule.
Thomas Jefferson, after the Constitution came into force, was crystal clear about that, former secretary of state Dean Rusk told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee this summer. As Jefferson expressed it in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798:
"Free government is founded on jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power: that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which and no further our confidence may go . . . . In questions of power then let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chain of the Constitution."
Jefferson, nonetheless, as the nation's third chief executive, also demonstrated how a resourceful president could extricate himself from almost any chains. He was the first to send American forces into foreign combat, and he bypassed Congress in the process.
In 1801 Jefferson reported to Congress -- nine months after the fact -- that he had dispatched a naval force to fight the Barbary pirates (which inspired the phrase in the opening line of the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn, ". . . to the shores of Tripoli"). Former senator Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.), chief architect of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, recalled that early example of presidential circumvention of Congress in his book, "Who Makes War: The President Versus Congress."
Javits quoted constitutional scholar Edward Corwin that Jefferson always was "deferential to Congress" in official messages, while "often secretive and sometimes furtive" in his actions.
A long line of presidents has operated on that double track. Jefferson pledged in his first message to Congress: "nothing shall be wanting on my part to inform, as far as in my power, the legislative judgment. Nor to carry that judgment into faithful execution."
Woodrow Wilson went through a double transformation in his views about what Corwin described as the Constitution's "invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy."
In 1884 as a 28-year-old graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, more than 30 years before he became president, Wilson finished writing "Congressional Government," a classic indictment. Congress wielded "despotic power," and the presidency had become ineffectual, he wrote. At the time, Wilson had never even observed "the proceedings of the House or Senate," a later scholar wrote, although "he was living in Baltimore."
Wilson "took a radically opposite view" after the Spanish-American War in 1898 and America's entrance into world politics, Walter Lippmann wrote in a 1956 reprint of Wilson's first book. In a second book in 1908, Wilson saw the presidency again, as it was in the nation's first years, "at the front of affairs." The pendulum had started to swing back to strong presidents: Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and, in 1912, to Wilson himself.
At the end of World War I, Wilson saw his original dismay with Congress shatteringly fulfilled in its rejection of his grand design, the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations. He died in 1924, a broken man.
That cycle of congressional primacy lasted until the advent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who so dominated the system that he was elected to four terms. To preclude a repetition, the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1951, placed a two-term limit on the presidency.
Even so, presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon found methods for expanding presidential power. An uproar over "the imperial presidency" reached a crescendo in the late 1960s during the war in Vietnam. Congress ruefully realized it had given Johnson "a blank check" in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged that he and Congress had been "hornswoggled" in that 1964 vote.
To redress the balance, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, over Nixon's veto. The objective was to compel the president to engage in genuine "consultation" with Congress before long-term commitment of U.S. forces overseas. Presidents and Congress have been at loggerheads ever since over the constitutionality and wisdom of that law.
In 1983 the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress reported, in an examination of the executive-legislative contest over foreign policy:
"Almost every postwar post-World War II president has made decisions to use U.S. armed forces without consulting Congress in advance but instead informing them after the decision: President Truman in the invasion of South Korea in 1950; President Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962; President Johnson in the Dominican Republic in 1965; President Nixon in the bombing of Cambodia of 1969; President Ford in the Mayaguez crisis of 1975; President Carter in the attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran in 1980; and President Reagan in the decision to send Marines to Lebanon in 1982." To which could be added the Reagan decision to send troops to Grenada in October 1983.
No matter how ardently presidents and Congresses assure each other of their cooperativeness, therefore, the chances are remote that either will agree that the other has fulfilled the commitment.
"Foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 in his penetrating examination of the American system. "They require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those in which it is deficient."