Wherever you stood on Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster to delay John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director, or on the confirmation hearings for Brennan and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, they all serve as a reminder of just how feeble Congress has proven to be when it comes to foreign policy.
This wasn’t immediately obvious, of course. Paul’s speech questioned whether there are limits on the President’s power to use drones to kill Americans who’ve been declared “enemy combatants.” But the CIA and military have been using drones overseas for years. Why did it take so long for the Congress to ponder the President’s power to use them?
Meanwhile, if you followed the confirmation hearings, you’d have to conclude that Congress thinks U.S. foreign policy centers on Israel, Cuba, and the destroyed consulate in Benghazi, Libya. On the long list of significant foreign policy issues confronting the White House — the rise of China, a war looming with Iran, increased tensions on the Korean peninsula, the fragmentation of Syria, Libya, the spread of Al Qaeda to northern Africa — there’s mostly been silence from the Congress. This is not how it’s supposed to be. Our Constitution gives Congress strong levers for dealing with foreign policy. Yet for the most part, Congress prefers deference to executive power. Most of its members, who know that their re-election rests on domestic issues, don’t bother to gain the expertise or develop the political will to become valuable foreign policy contributors, as the Constitution intended.
Our system is based on the premise that better policy emerges if the President and Congress work together. It expects Congress to hold executive policies up to the light and to weigh in with its own concerns. To do this, members need to be fully informed both about the complexities of foreign issues and about what the administration is doing. They need to make robust oversight commonplace, asking executive-branch policymakers to spell out and justify policies and their implementation. They need to use the power of the purse to grant or deny funds if their views are not taken into account.
Developing American foreign policy is complicated, confusing, and sometimes frustrating. But our country is at its strongest when it is unified and speaks with the voice not just of the President, but of the American people’s representatives in Congress. It’s time for Congress to shoulder its responsibilities on foreign policy.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.