17.2 Influence from Congress and Outside Government

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. How does Congress influence foreign policy?
  2. How have presidents attempted to deal with congressional involvement in international affairs?
  3. What nongovernmental groups influence foreign policy and how?

The constitutional division of power between the president and Congress is an “invitation to struggle over the privilege of directing U.S. foreign policy” (Henkin, 1972; Hamilton, 2002). This struggle is most likely to take place when different political parties control the presidency and Congress, when powerful members of Congress disagree with the administration’s policies, and when these policies are controversial or unpopular.

The president’s ability on occasion to make decisions and take action quickly gives him more power over foreign policy than Congress, which takes more time. Nonetheless, Congress can be influential by asserting its amending, oversight, and budgetary powers.

By attaching amendments to pieces of legislation, Congress has directed foreign aid funding for specific countries or purposes such as aid for Israel, buying products made in America, and prohibiting money from being spent on family planning programs (Collier, 1988). But amendments are normally limited to relatively minor policies.

Congress can also exercise influence through oversight of the executive branch’s implementation of foreign or military policy (Johnson, 1980). During the Vietnam War, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator J. W. Fulbright (D-AR), held hearings critical of the administration’s conduct of the war. During the George W. Bush administration, committees in the House and Senate held hearings on the abusive treatment of prisoners by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and what higher-ups in the command knew about them. But hearings usually take place after policies have been implemented or too late to change them significantly.

Congress can also influence foreign policy through its budgetary powers. It can reduce or even refuse to fund programs. But congressional budgetary powers are blunt and not fine-tuned to the particulars of a policy. Cutting off funding is particularly difficult when it makes members vulnerable to accusations (especially in campaign advertisements directed against them by their opponent) of failing to fund the troops, as happened during the Iraq War. Budgetary controls also do little to offset the president’s authority to commit the United States to a course of action by announcing such policy decisions as a war on terrorism.

The struggle between Congress and the president to control American foreign and military policy can also take place over three constitutional powers that the president and Congress share: appointments, treaties, and war.


The president appoints, but the Senate has the constitutional authority to approve the appointment of ambassadors and those charged with running government departments that conduct foreign policy, such as the Departments of State and Defense. This gives the Senate a voice in how these organizations are run. The Senate does readily and routinely confirm most appointees, but this is often because the president, anticipating objections, usually makes unobjectionable appointments.

In addition, presidents often evade the appointment problem by using people whose appointment is not subject to Senate approval as negotiators. These people may be trusted allies of the president or have expertise in the issue being negotiated. In the Reagan administration, National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Oliver North was the driving force in the ill-fated Iran-Contra deal that would have freed the American hostages in Iran and funded the Contras in Nicaragua through secret weapons sales to Iran.


Oliver North

Read a related interview with Oliver North online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/special/north.html.


The Constitution states that it is the president who by and with the advice and consent of the Senate negotiates treaties. The approval of two-thirds of the senators voting is required. The Senate does not always consent. The Republican-controlled Senate, for example, rejected the Treaty of Versailles negotiated by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson following the end of World War I. This treaty created the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations, but with the treaty’s rejection the United States did not join. Today, presidents routinely include key members of the Senate on negotiating teams as a means of obtaining advice before and easing consent after a treaty is signed.

The Senate has rejected few treaties outright, but presidents have learned that approval is not assured even when senators are involved or at least consulted in advance (Johnson, 1984). For example, in 1999 the Senate rejected, by a vote of fifty-one to forty-eight, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which would have banned all tests of nuclear weapons (Schwartz, 2000). Even without rejecting a treaty, the Senate may modify it by making amendments and thereby undermining a complex international agreement and bringing about a diplomatic or security crisis.

The Senate’s power of advice and consent is somewhat negated by the president’s increased reliance on executive agreements over treaties as a means of entering into agreements with other states (Margolis, 1986). Unlike treaties, executive agreements do not require the consent of the Senate before becoming law. Presidents are free to enter into them at their own discretion and to end them when they see fit. Congress has tried to curb this power but with little effect. In the 1970s, it passed the Case-Zablocki Act that required presidents to inform Congress of any and all executive agreements they entered into.

War Powers

The Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war and to raise and maintain armed forces. But when does a state of war come into existence? The United States has sent troops into battle over 125 times in its history, yet Congress has declared war only five times: the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, World War I, and World War II. No declaration of war preceded the entry of American forces into the Korean War. President Harry Truman all but ignored Congress, basing his use of force on a UN Security Council resolution, an argument that would be used again later in the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. Vietnam too was fought without a declaration of war. When the legality of this war was challenged, defenders pointed to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in which Congress authorized the president to take whatever steps he felt necessary to protect and defend American forces in South Vietnam; the war’s defenders also pointed to congressional votes authorizing funds for fighting the war. The argument was that if Congress did not support the war, all it had to do was stop authorizing funds to fight it. Such an action is far easier said than done.

The congressional–presidential struggle over war-making powers came to a head during the Vietnam era and led to Congress passing the War Powers Resolution over President Richard Nixon’s veto. This resolution effectively allows the president ninety days to wage war without congressional approval. No president has recognized the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution, though none has openly challenged it either. (See Chapter 13 “The Presidency”.) (Howell & Pevehouse, 2007)

Influence from Outside Government

Influence can be exerted on foreign and national security policy by think tanks, interest groups, and the public through opinion polls and elections.

Think Tanks

Think tanks are private research organizations that seek to influence public policy. They have been referred to as “idea brokers” because they help define the issues on the policy agenda and options for addressing them (Abelson, 1996).

Foreign policy is an area in which think tanks have become especially active for several reasons. First, it has become much more complex: no longer restricted to national security, foreign policy encompasses trade, finance, human rights, the environment, and cultural issues. Second, the information abilities of the government have been overwhelmed by this expanded foreign policy agenda. Long-range planning and strategic speculation are now commonly produced by think tanks, as is current information on breaking issues. Third, think tanks provide multiple and competing policy recommendations backed up with supporting information.

Interest Groups

A wide variety of groups try to influence US foreign policy. There are economic groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation. There are ethnic groups representing Arab, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Cuban, and Eastern European Americans (Smith, 2000; DeConde, 1992). Ideological and public interest groups seek to influence US foreign policy in such areas as human rights (Amnesty International) and the environment (the Sierra Club).

As documented in Chapter 9 “Interest Groups”, foreign governments can also behave as interest groups. After 9/11 and during the Iraq War, Saudi Arabia came under harsh criticism in the United States for its failure to crack down on terrorist groups. Part of the Saudi response was to engage in a large-scale media and lobbying campaign to improve its image and relations with government in the United States.

Interest groups often conflict on an issue. In the debate over creating free trade areas such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), business groups were pitted against labor and environmental groups. In other cases, one interest group seems to dominate a policy area. This has long been the case with the Arab-Israeli conflict, where Jewish-American groups, notably the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have been particularly influential.

Public Opinion

Americans have “limited attention and low levels of knowledge about the details of foreign affairs” (Page & Bouton, 2006). Nonetheless, they have views about foreign policy. These are influenced by the opinions of trusted elites as communicated, not always accurately, by the media (Baum & Groeling, 2010).

More generally, Americans would like their country to pursue national security and international justice through participation in treaties and agreements and collective decision making within international organizations. They would also like the country to combat international terrorism, prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, reduce levels of immigration, and protect Americans’ jobs.

Many of these opinions are neither detailed nor intensely held. The public therefore usually goes along with America’s foreign policies or at least gives policymakers the benefit of the doubt unless the media tell them that things have gone wrong. Nonetheless, the public can sometimes initiate and constrain foreign policy (Johnstone & Laville, 2010).

The timing of elections is one way public opinion influences the president’s willingness to undertake foreign policy initiatives and exercise military force. Presidents become increasingly hesitant to take foreign policy risks as elections approach for fear of having their leadership called into question. Even successes can be criticized as being too costly. So deep-seated is this reluctance to act that a common complaint from foreign leaders is that US foreign policymaking grinds to a halt every four years. For a different view, there is the film Wag the Dog (1997), in which a president’s aides invent a war with Albania to distract media and public attention from his involvement in a sex scandal that is about to derail his reelection.

One question that has received considerable attention is the American public’s opinions about the use of military force. The conventional wisdom after Vietnam was that Americans would not support military action if it resulted in significant casualties to US troops. This was called the Vietnam syndrome.

As a result, any military involvement in the future would have to be short and involve the overwhelming application of force (Jentleson, 1990). The George W. Bush administration’s decision to minimize the number of US forces on the ground in the Iraq War and the heavy use of air power as a prelude to the ground war reflected this syndrome.

The American public’s willingness to tolerate casualties depends on the reasons for military action (Feaver & Gelpi, 2004). People are most supportive of the use of military force when they believe it is to protect the United States against attack. Nonetheless, protracted conflicts lower presidential popularity: witness Korea and President Truman, Vietnam and President Johnson, and Iraq and President George W. Bush.

Key Takeaways

Congress is involved in foreign and military policies through its amending, oversight, and budgetary powers and through the constitutional power related to appointments, treaties, and war it shares with the president. While Congress has sometimes worked to limit the president’s autonomy in foreign policy, the use of executive orders and the ability to enter military engagements without formal declarations of war have ensured the president’s continued primacy in international affairs. Forces that sometimes influence foreign and military policies from outside government are think tanks, interest groups, and public opinion.


  1. What formal constitutional powers does Congress have that allow it to influence foreign policy?
  2. Why might it be difficult for Congress to limit the president’s power to send troops into combat, even though it is Congress that has the formal power to declare war?
  3. Why do you think the American public is relatively uninterested in foreign affairs? What foreign policy issues do you think Americans care about the most?


Abelson, D. E., Think Tanks and Their Role in U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: St. Martins, 1996).

Baum, M. A. and Tim J. Groeling, War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Collier, R. B., “Foreign Policy by Reporting Requirements,” Washington Quarterly 11 (1988): 74–84.

DeConde, A., Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy (Boston: Little Brown. 1992).

Feaver, P. D. and Christopher Gelpi, Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

Hamilton, L., A Creative Tension: The Foreign Policy Roles of the President and Congress (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002).

Henkin, L., Foreign Affairs and the Constitution (Mineola, NY: Foundation Press, 1972), 131.

Howell, W. G. and Jon C. Pevehouse, While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

Jentleson, B. W., “The Pretty Prudent Public: Post Vietnam Public Opinion on the Use of Military Force,” International Studies Quarterly 36 (1990): 49–74.

Johnson, L. K., The Making of International Agreements: Congress Confronts the Executive (New York: New York University Press, 1984).

Johnson, L. K., “The U.S. Congress and the CIA: Monitoring the Dark Side of Government,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 4 (1980): 477–99.

Johnstone, A. and Helen Laville, eds., The US Public and American Foreign Policy (New York: Routledge, 2010).

Margolis, L. W., Executive Agreements and Presidential Power in Foreign Policy (New York: Praeger, 1986).

Page, B. I. with Marshall M. Bouton, The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders but Don’t Get (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 226.

Schwartz, S. I., “Outmaneuvered, Out Gunned, and Out of View,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 56 (January 2000): 24–31.

Smith, T., Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).


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