Congressional Power - New means of congressional power

By the end of the 1950s, then, it seemed as if Congress had lost much of its de facto input into the making of U.S. foreign policy. But two major exceptions to this pattern existed: subcommittee government and the foreign aid program. In part because of its relative youth (it had been created only in 1947), the Armed Services Committee proved much less successful at resisting challenges to its authority than had been the Foreign Relations Committee before World War II. That inability to defend its turf helps explain the postwar explosion of subcommittees dealing with foreign policy issues. Joseph McCarthy was the most prominent senator to use a subcommittee (of the formerly low-profile Government Operations Committee) to advance his own foreign policy agenda, but his activities are best viewed more broadly, as part of the decentralization of power within Congress on national security matters. Overall, the number of Senate foreign policy subcommittees grew from seven in 1946 to thirty-one two decades later.

Eisenhower's second term witnessed the establishment of three particularly important subcommittees, each chaired by a contender for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. After the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, Richard Russell handed the issue over to his protégé, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who chaired the Preparedness Investigations Subcommittee. In late 1958, Senator Henry Jackson introduced a resolution mandating a study of the National Security Council's performance. The resolution was reported to the Government Operations Committee—on which Jackson, not coincidentally, served—and over the next two years, a sub-committee chaired by Jackson conducted a wide-ranging investigation of Eisenhower's foreign policy that only tangentially related to the National Security Council. From a much different ideological perspective, Hubert Humphrey's Disarmament Subcommittee, an offshoot of the Foreign Relations Committee, looked to build a case for arms control initiatives. The hearings helped pave the way for the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1961.

The decentralized committee structure gave senators interested in foreign policy questions an avenue for achieving direct influence—sometimes by facilitating informal ties with members of the national bureaucracy, sometimes through hearings that sought to influence political debate, sometimes by providing a vehicle for marshaling the appropriations power. Moreover, these three subcommittees starkly contrasted with the ineffective tactics associated with the "limited dissent," showing how members of Congress could—and did—influence national security policy even at the height of the Cold War. Until the early 1960s, the most effective congressional criticism came from the right. But that situation would soon change, since liberals would build upon the tactics pioneered by the likes of Jackson and Johnson to challenge the Cold War anticommunist consensus.

Subcommittee government also played a key role in bolstering congressional involvement in the foreign aid program. Moreover, because the Constitution required all revenue measures to originate in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber used foreign aid to enhance its foreign policy role. In another example of the power of foreign policy subcommittees, Otto Passman, the chair of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, regularly used his position to reduce the total appropriations requested by Eisenhower, and later John Kennedy, by 20 or 25 percent—an effort that was aided by the program's consistent domestic unpopularity. Passman thoroughly enjoyed the effort: he informed one harried Eisenhower administration official that his sole pleasure in life was cutting the foreign aid budget.

For the early postwar period, congressional conservatives, worried about the excessive cost and the support it provided to left-of-center regimes, provided the most vociferous criticism of foreign aid. As long as these conservatives remained the only opposition, a bipartisan coalition of northern Democrats and moderate Republicans provided the votes necessary for passage. But beginning in the early 1960s, the program started coming under attack from liberals, mostly in the Senate. Democratic senators such as George McGovern, Albert Gore, Frank Church, and Ernest Gruening contended that both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had excessively employed foreign aid as a tool of the Cold War, showering dictatorial regimes with military assistance solely because of their anticommunist credentials. The senators began by offering amendments to deny foreign aid to governments that came to power through undemocratic means. They also gradually expanded their efforts to launch an attack on military aid that began to veer toward repudiating Cold War liberalism itself.

This new base of opposition developed at a critical moment, for in the early 1960s foreign aid assumed a new importance in containment policy. Kennedy's counterinsurgency theories dictated a considerable expansion in military aid expenditures. And the administration's boldest new international initiative, the Alliance for Progress, promised a multiyear U.S. commitment of economic and military assistance to Latin America. Unfortunately for John F. Kennedy, in 1963 Passman's conservatives and the Senate liberals joined forces in an awkward ideological alliance that inflicted a serious setback to the administration. In the aftermath, foreign aid bills became a favorite vehicle for policy riders on issues as diverse as human rights, expropriation of U.S. owned property, and the foreign policies of recipient regimes. The pattern of congressional deference had started to break down well before the surge of congressional activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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