The end of the Cold War broke down the established pattern of legislative-executive relations. The Cold War's conclusion accelerated the trend, which began with Vietnam and Watergate, of diminishing the federal government's role in the everyday lives of most Americans. The new international environment forced members of both branches to search for new ideological approaches to world affairs. And it coincided with—and perhaps contributed to—the most extended period of divided government (with one party controlling Congress and another the presidency) in American history.
Most academics and politicians had predicted that the end of the Cold War would establish a more consistent congressional presence in U.S. foreign policy because the threat of immediate nuclear attack had so dramatically receded. But the first post–Cold War president, George H. W. Bush, defied expectations, even though he faced a Congress controlled by Democrats for his entire term. Encouraged by his White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, Bush proved extraordinarily aggressive at defending (and enlarging) executive prerogatives, using vetoes and especially presidential signing statements to outline a vision of presidential power whose scope would have stunned even a figure like Alexander Hamilton. A sign of his intentions came in his first year, when he sent marines to Panama in 1989—without congressional authorization—to remove from power and arrest Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, who was wanted in the United States on drug charges. Bush also rejected congressional attempts to influence policy toward the People's Republic of China, consistently vetoing bills to tighten sanctions on the Beijing regime after the Tiananmen Square crackdown against student dissidents.
Congressional Democrats, who generally outmaneuvered Bush on domestic issues, had more difficulty in adjusting to the post–Cold War environment. The new Senate majority leader, Maine senator George Mitchell, was a former judge and believed that framework legislation, if properly used, would allow Congress to play a greater foreign policy role. The run-up to the Gulf War of 1991 put this thesis to the test. After Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush, acting in concert with U.S. allies, eventually sent 250,000 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. But, citing the measure's unconstitutionality, Bush refused to invoke the War Powers Act. After the 1990 midterm elections, the administration moved another quarter million U.S. forces into the region, clearly anticipating the possibility of offensive action. Bush officials suggested that the president would go to war with Iraq without requesting a declaration of war from Congress, citing his power as commander in chief.
Led by Mike Synar, a group of House Democrats petitioned the Supreme Court for redress. But in line with precedent, the Court declined to involve itself in foreign policy battles between the executive and legislative branches. (Indeed, the few decisions the high court did render on international issues, such as the 1983 ruling Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, which ruled the one-house legislative veto unconstitutional, tended to weaken congressional influence.) Although Synar's effort failed, political pressure eventually persuaded Bush to submit a bill authorizing him to use force. The president did so, however, only days short of an announced deadline to initiate offensive action and with more than 500,000 U.S. troops stationed along the Iraq–Saudi Arabia border. In such an environment it came as little surprise that Congress supported the war declaration; perhaps the real shock came in the forty-seven senators who opposed the resolution.
The record regarding congressional power after the Gulf War was somewhat mixed. Like his predecessor, William Jefferson Clinton struggled with the effects of divided government: a crushing defeat in the 1994 midterm elections brought Republicans to power in both the House and the Senate. Moreover, unlike the Mitchell-led congressional Democrats during the Bush administration, the new GOP majority was fairly united ideologically and was determined to use congressional power to implement its agenda. Clinton experienced difficulties with Congress almost from the start of his administration. Legislative pressure in part forced the administration to reverse itself on issues ranging from Clinton's commitment to end discrimination against gays in the military to the president's decision to continue an ill-conceived humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Even the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, Clinton's first legislative victory on a foreign policy matter (and, in many ways, the only significant one of his administration) came only after a bloody fight with Congress.
After 1994, a condition of almost permanent hostility between the president and Congress developed. Congressional Republicans offered a multifaceted program that coalesced into an unusually powerful—and effective—critique of the executive's approach to world affairs. Ideologically, the congressional Republicans had several basic viewpoints that reinforced each other. Some GOP legislators seemed eager to revive the Cold War, embracing a vehement anticommunism and supporting hard-line policies toward China, Cuba, and North Korea. Moreover, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the congressional Republicans used Congress's power of the purse to prevent the scaling back of the Pentagon budget, partly for ideological reasons, partly due to a desire to funnel defense dollars to their home districts or states. From another angle, Republicans such as House Majority Leader Richard Armey of Texas boasted of their lack of overseas travel and espoused an anti-internationalism that targeted organizations like the United Nations. Most of the new wave of congressional Republicans also opposed overseas interventions—like Clinton's actions in Haiti and the Balkans—which they viewed as Wilsonian in theory.
Three other factors made the congressional power exercised by the 1990s GOP somewhat unusual. First, after their opposition to the Gulf War, congressional Democrats, for the previous forty years the more active of the two parties in seeking to utilize congressional power, all but ceased involvement on matters relating to foreign affairs. Second, after a series of weak leaders following the 1974 defeat of J. William Fulbright, the Foreign Relations Committee returned to a higher profile under the stewardship of the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, whose aggressive posture made him a factor on virtually all international questions during the Clinton administration. Finally, the extreme distaste most congressional Republicans felt for Clinton gave party members a political incentive to oppose executive authority in foreign policy, as when Congress refused to renew Clinton's authority to "fast-track" trade agreements, a luxury enjoyed by every president since the passage of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act in 1934.
Still, the performance of the congressional GOP sometimes failed to live up to its rhetoric. For example, while Clinton's ability to negotiate tariff deals was impeded, he acted unilaterally and in opposition to the stated congressional position when he intervened to prop up the Mexican peso in 1995. Similarly, in the midst of the war in Kosovo, he initiated hostilities without formally consulting Congress and then ignored GOP-sponsored legislation that seemed to call for him to terminate the operation. Regardless of the precise balance between the two branches at the end of the twentieth century, however, older patterns in congressional power remained in place: the role of the appropriations process and other unconventional methods in measuring the congressional presence in conducting U.S. foreign policy; the importance of party divisions in shaping attitudes toward the congressional role in world affairs; and the tendency of Congress to offer more ideologically extreme viewpoints on international matters than did the executive.