New Report: How to Reclaim Congressional Foreign Policy Leadership in 2021

For much of the 19th century, Congress was “the center and source” for foreign policy, setting the agenda and taking the lead on many of the nation’s most important issues of war and peace. Today, this history reads more like fiction, with scholars and analysts concluding “the imperial presidency is alive and well.” From the creation of a professionalized diplomatic corps in 1924 to the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934, and from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), Congress has gradually ceded foreign policy power to the presidency, washing its hands of the risky business of global leadership. 

Yet, since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, members of Congress of both parties have demonstrated growing interest—individually and institutionally—to engage in foreign policy, even in conflict with the presidency. These efforts include “diplomatic damage control” meetings with allied heads of government and foreign ministers, sanctioning Russia and Turkey over administration opposition, expressing support for NATO and using the War Powers Resolution to try and restrict military action in Yemen. 

However, in many of these cases, especially those that seek legislative changes to specific, substantive foreign policy matters, Congress’s efforts have met with little success. In part, this is because Congress has focused too much on headline issues of “policy influence,” and largely ignored structural foreign policy and legislative diplomacy, areas where its efforts to lead on foreign affairs have been more likely to succeed over the last few decades. 

In a new report recently released from the R Street Institute, “Congress and Foreign Policy: An Actionable Agenda for Empowered Engagement in 2021,” I outline the structural drivers—bigger than any one member’s ability to change—of Congress’s decline in headline foreign policy powers. I then argue that headline influence is a poor standard on which to judge Congress’s modern role in foreign policy, overlooking subtler institutional innovations that have empowered legislative diplomacy in recent decades below the surface. Finally, I introduce a slate of specific reforms Congress could undertake to empower its relative institutional strengths in structural foreign policy, increase its informational and operational capacity and build on previous successes. 

The modern international environment is characterized by the need for quick response to foreign policy crises, disadvantaging the more deliberative legislative branch compared to the Executive’s large national security bureaucracy. In addition, other institutional realities raise the bar even higher for collective congressional action in foreign affairs. These include:

  • Collective action difficulties: for example, approximately 100 committees and subcommittees oversee pieces of the Department of Homeland Security, which limits a unified voice on policy direction, even via appropriation.
  • Relative absence of interest groups: which provides little incentive for most members to pay attention to the bureaucratic plumbing of foreign policy, even if they care about specific, substantive issues.
  • First-mover and agenda-setting power: exemplified by United Nations “police actions” and reciprocal “executive agreements” that replace congressionally debated declarations of war and treaties, respectively, leaving Congress to react rather than lead.
  • Risk-aversion incentive to delegate: according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), more members of Congress, “prefer to blame the president if things go wrong” than take an affirmative stand on major security issues.
  • Information asymmetries: also known as congressional “undersight.”
  • Bipartisan consensus: traditional consensus on broad foreign policy issues among leaders of both parties pre-Trump, reduced the incentive to develop institutional capacity for fundamental disagreements between branches.

Given these structural factors—which won’t be changed by well-intentioned members simply trying harder or introducing more War Powers resolutions—Congress should reconceptualize the standard on which its foreign policy leadership is judged. Rather than tilt quixotically at windmills, Congress should play to its institutional advantages. The modern interbranch foreign policy environment favors legislative diplomacy, structural foreign policy, congressional advisors and individual foreign policy entrepreneurs—and does not favor substantive foreign policy legislation, treaty-making or war powers.  

Recognizing this new standard and the channels it implies for Congress to most effectively invest in bolstering its foreign policy capacity, the report recommends the following reforms:

  • Enhance the capacity of legislative diplomatic institutions such as staff and funding for the House Democracy Partnership and Open World Leadership Center, particularly through additional detailees from the State Department, USAID and congressional support agencies like the Library of Congress and Congressional Research Service.
  • Establish new congressional advisory structures on emerging, cross-cutting issues such as frontier technologies and digital authoritarianism.
  • Explore a Foreign Service Act or “GI Bill for Diplomacy,” to update the human capital practices of America’s foreign affairs agencies for the first time since 1980.
  • Pass State and Foreign Assistance Authorization Acts, which Congress has failed to do since 2002 and 1986, respectively.
  • Transform reporting requirements through the use of accessible, real-time dashboards on key foreign policy issues. 

The bureaucratic plumbing of foreign policy has been on the front pages and top of mind for policymakers recently in ways not seen in nearly 50 years. At the same time, an unorthodox foreign policy worldview in the administration has sparked independent congressional activism on foreign policy by members of both parties. Unfortunately, much of this activism, while well-intentioned, has been directed at the channels least likely to be successful in exercising Congress’s leadership in foreign affairs.

In place of these well-intentioned but low-probability efforts, this report proposes a new standard around which to direct Congress’s foreign policy activism, that plays on more favorable institutional turf and then derives reforms to capitalize on those areas of comparative congressional advantage. This improved standard aims for Congress to optimize its institutional capacity to drive foreign policy via effective, complementary legislative diplomacy, which gives lawmakers more independence to assess and generate foreign policy proposals, and to set the structure and process of executive-branch foreign policymaking. 

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Topics: Foreign Policy
Ryan Dukeman
Ryan Dukeman (@ryandukeman) is a PhD student at Princeton University, where he studies reform in US foreign policy institutions. He previously helped ...

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