Two Foreign Policies! I Shudder…

Obviously, 98 percent of the things being said about Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria are 98 percent disingenuous, but I have got some sense that some number of people have some level of genuine concern that it’s bad for congress to be seen as having an “independent foreign policy” from the one the president is running. This is, I think, a mistake about the nature of the American system of government. I heartily agree that American-style separation of powers between the legislature and the executive is a bad idea and would gladly support a constitutional convention to provide us with a parliamentary form of government. That said, we have the government we have. The president gets fixed four-year terms independent of the congress, and the congress has authority distinct from the president’s. Nancy Pelosi needs to discharge the duties of her office as they exist in the actual constitution.

Those duties give congress a gigantic role to play in foreign affairs. Congress, for example, sets the Pentagon’s budget. And, of course, the Foreign Operations budget. Think we should help Indonesia set up a high-quality secular education system? Combat AIDS in Africa? Build a missile defense system? Waste less money on the Virginia Class submarine? Make aid to Pakistan conditional on moves toward democracy? Make a free trade agreement with South Korea? Secure authorization to maintain a gigantic military presence in Iraq? You need . . . congressional votes to do any of those things. And, obviously, those things are the very blood and guts of foreign policy. The president and the diplomats who work for him can negotiate anything they like, but nothing happens unless they can get congress to agree to it. These powers — the power to pass laws, appropriate funds, ratify treaties, etc. — aren’t esoteric elements of congressional authority, they’re the very essence of congressional authority.

Insofar as congress disagrees with the president about the desirability of foreign aid programs, military expenditures, treaties, trade pacts, etc. those things don’t happen. Thus, the views of congressional leaders are of direct and immediate concern to foreignern leaders. Which is why foreign leaders are willing to talk to congressional leaders. There’s no special rule about foreign policy that says it’s somehow unfair for congress to get involved. It’s true that this makes US policy less coherent than it might be, but coherence in that sense isn’t one of the features of American political institutions. The Social Security Administration is, for example, currently run by an executive branch that thinks Social Security should be done away with. The program continues to exist because congress disagrees. And somehow the country goes on, day after day, without everyone needing to cry into their Washington Posts over breakfast.