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Executive-Congressional Relations and National Security

Author: Matthew C. Waxman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy
January 28, 2013
Hoover Institution


The last four years should have been a good period for executive-congressional relations in the areas of national security and foreign affairs. The president, vice president, and secretary of state were former Senators. They all viewed President George W. Bush as too inclined to bypass or ignore Congress and they promised to do better. And the Obama administration started with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

It is thus surprising that the past four years have been notable for inter-branch clashes and paralysis on some major national security agenda items, with the administration failing to engage Congress or operating in a slowly reactive mode, while many congressional Republicans remain in an obstructionist mode. In the second term, the Obama administration will need to pick its legislative priorities more deliberately, engage with allies and opponents in Congress more actively, and be willing to negotiate compromises or wage aggressive campaigns on key issues.

Congress has repeatedly stifled the president's signature counterterrorism promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Congress's opposition has been more than political. Beginning with legislation in 2010 when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, Congress has consistently placed legal barriers on the president's ability to transfer Guantanamo detainees or to try them in civilian courts in the United States. After hinting in his speech at the National Archives in 2009 that he would work with Congress on these issues, Obama has put forward no proposal of his own, nor has his administration been willing to explore possible compromises on long-term Guantanamo policies, instead playing defense against moves by congressional blocs with their own Guantanamo agendas. That defensive strategy has included a series of veto threats, which were always abandoned in the end and now carry little credibility.

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