One might be tempted to conclude from all this activity that the legislature is finally clawing back some of the foreign policy and national security power that it has delegated to the president over the last half century, and especially since 9/11.
But don’t be fooled by the sudden congressional focus on foreign policy. Congress remains in a weak position to restrain the president overseas. The Democrats believe that Trump’s efforts to withhold aid to Ukraine until its government agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden constituted an abuse of power and necessitated a vote to impeach the president. But the outcome of the Senate trial will reflect domestic politics, not senators’ views about legislative oversight of foreign affairs. Congress’s inability to pass a veto-proof bill to limit the president’s war powers in Iran, moreover, is one more sign that the balance of power on foreign policy isn’t shifting back toward the legislative branch.
If the Cold War led to the rise of the imperial presidency, the end of the Cold War left the office virtually unconstrained overseas. Without great-power competition to focus the public’s attention, Congress turned inward. Constituents no longer seemed to value expertise on foreign affairs, so new members were less likely to develop proficiency. Leading committees such as Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Armed Services held fewer and fewer hearings, thus limiting direct legislative oversight of the executive branch.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks refocused attention on foreign policy, but they only accelerated the trend toward increasing presidential war power. Congress authorized the use of military force against those responsible for the attacks, but the same AUMF has been used to justify nearly two decades of military or related action in at least 14 countries.
Later, the United States engaged in a new military effort in Iraq and Syria to combat the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, but there was little congressional appetite to update either AUMF. As a result, both authorizations remain on the books for the president to invoke. Indeed, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien asserted that the 2002 AUMF gave Trump the authority to kill Soleimani.
Trump has demonstrated just how much power the executive has accrued. He unilaterally imposed tariffs on adversaries and allies alike, gave Turkey a green light to invade Syria, and authorized the assassination of Iran’s most important general. After the Soleimani strike, Trump sent out a tweet that he said served “as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back.” He added that “such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”
The last time Congress sought to reclaim power over foreign policy from the executive branch was after Watergate—and those reforms ultimately faltered. This Congress is roiled by intense partisanship and unlikely to have any more success reining in the president. The old adage that “politics stops at the water’s edge” hasn’t applied to Congress in decades—if it ever did.
It is not just partisanship preventing Congress from taking more responsibility for foreign policy. Lawmakers regardless of party status are loath to leave their fingerprints on measures that limit presidential discretion in committing troops abroad, for fear of having those measures held against them down the road.
Much as we might wish them to, lawmakers are unlikely to seize this opportunity to reassert the powers entrusted to them by the framers of the Constitution.
Source: Impeachment Won’t Diminish the Imperial Presidency