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Should Members of Congress Conduct U.S. Foreign Policy Abroad?

Author: Lionel Beehner
May 3, 2007
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Among the powers of the U.S. president as written in the constitution is the ability to conduct foreign policy. Over the past few decades, however, a growing number of prominent lawmakers in Congress have made independent trips abroad and, in some cases, courted controversy for overstepping their bounds by meeting with foreign leaders or making statements on U.S. foreign policy. The most recent example was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s April visit to Damascus, in which she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Her visit drew protests from President Bush, who called her trip “counterproductive.”

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Speakers and Foreign Policy

Some experts say Pelosi’s visit to Syria was within the bounds of the constitution so long as she spoke for herself and not for the executive branch, which ultimately controls U.S. foreign policy. “It’s very normal for rank-and-file members of Congress to travel to other countries,” but also for House speakers, says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “A speaker has constitutional standing. It’s entirely appropriate.” He says in most circumstances, these lawmakers get briefings from the White House before their trips “but sometimes speakers can’t resist moving off on their own.”

A recent example of this, he says, was a 1997 visit to Colombia by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, in which he appeared to contradict the Clinton administration’s policy of attaching human rights conditions to its military aid package. Hastert denies that his trip to Colombia can be compared to Pelosi’s trip to Syria because he was not speaker at the time and, on the issue of Colombia, he was in agreement with the president, who later invited Hastert along on a trip to Bogota in 2000.

Another much-discussed example was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s trip to China in 1997. During his visit, he privately told Chinese officials that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if it came under attack from the mainland. The White House at the time distanced itself from the speaker’s remarks, said Gingrich was “speaking for himself,” and reiterated its support for the Taiwan Relations Act, which upholds the “one-China policy.” Gingrich later acknowledged his comments were a mistake, Mann says.

The activism of congressional leaders on the foreign policy front is primarily a post-Cold War phenomenon. Previously, speakers of the house were barely visible outside the United States. Tip O’Neill (D-MA), who was speaker from 1977 until 1987, was among the first house speakers to garner international attention but he rarely traveled abroad, except to Ireland. His successor, Jim Wright (D-TX), however, was very active in foreign policy matters, particularly in Central America. In 1987, he backed a peace plan put forth by then-Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won that year’s Nobel Peace Prize, to negotiate with Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas. Wright later participated in mediation talks between the ruling Sandinistas and opposition contras, much to the chagrin of the Reagan administration and Republicans in Congress. “There was a lot of criticism that he overstepped his bounds,” says Mann. The Washington Post opined at the time: “The proprieties of the American system come under heavy assault when the speaker uses such power as though the actual conduct of diplomacy in this delicate passage were his responsibility.” An ethics panel later found Wright had misused book royalties and he was forced to step down in 1989.

A Balance of Power Issue

Some experts say the Wright case highlights the tensions inherent between the legislative and executive branches with regards to foreign policymaking. It also feeds into the current fight on Capitol Hill regarding Congress’ role in executing the war in Iraq. “No president likes to see Congress take an active role in foreign policy, especially when the two branches are at odds over what policy should be,” write William M. LeoGrande of American University and Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service in the American Prospect Online. “But although the Constitution gives the president the leading role in international affairs, it does not give him an exclusive mandate.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill should be encouraged to travel abroad, says Nancy E. Roman, vice president and director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Washington Program. “As long as they’re going with a good motive, all 535 members of Congress have the right to travel abroad. I’m for the Bill Gates school of engagement—the more relationships, the better.” She says these trips should be done in coordination with the executive branch. Upon returning, these lawmakers should brief White House and State Department officials. “They should be seen as a resource rather than as competition,” she says, adding that problems arise when higher-profile members of Congress negotiate with foreign officials, hold joint press conferences with heads of state, or get interviewed about U.S. foreign policy by the local (often state-controlled) press. “You must be conscious and careful not to mouth off and hold press conferences that will complicate foreign policy,” says Roman. “When you’re high profile, there’s an onus on you to weigh your words more carefully.”

To Engage or Not to Engage?

The debate over congressional lawmakers carrying out their own foreign policy agendas comes amid a tense political climate in Washington where there is growing philosophical disagreement over whether engagement with America’s enemies is a wiser course of action than isolating them. “There is a general sense that the administration’s efforts to isolate, for example, Iran and North Korea have not produced the results hoped for,” says Mann. That has prompted legislative leaders like Pelosi to travel to countries with which the United States has had strained relations. Her trip to Syria, she claims, was one of the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which called for greater engagement with Damascus and Tehran.

But her political opponents accused her of muddling U.S. foreign policy with a country that is on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. “I think it's very important not to have two foreign policies,” Newt Gingrich told reporters. Some say she fumbled a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel was ready to negotiate with Syria. The prime minister quickly issued a clarification to reiterate Israel’s stance that Syria remains a part of the “Axis of Evil.” Others applauded Pelosi’s trip. “As far as I can tell, she was very scrupulous and made it clear she was not speaking on behalf of the United States or its government,” says Mann. “When the dust cleared, it turned out there was less there than meets the eye. My own view is her political opponents saw an opportunity to make some hay.”

Through the early 1990s, Bill Richardson, at the time a Democratic congressman from New Mexico, made a number of visits to countries like North Korea, Sudan, and Cuba to represent U.S. interests. In 1995, he traveled to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein and negotiate the release of two American aerospace workers. His diplomatic skills won him an appointment in 1997 by then-President Clinton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Even after becoming New Mexico’s governor, Richardson continued to make trips to North Korea and Sudan with the blessing of the Republican Bush administration.

In recent months, several congressmen, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA), have expressed an interest in traveling to Iran. To date, they have been denied visas from Tehran but that could change if bilateral tensions were to ease. Roman welcomes the move. “The desire to understand Iran and build relationships with policymakers there and feel out the situation on the ground is a positive thing,” she says. “But if the president called me up and said ‘I understand you want to go to Iran and I understand why, but I’d prefer you not go,’ I’d be inclined to respect his wish.”

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