That the amendments would not spawn ideological successors, however, was not apparent at the time. The congressional elections of 1972 and 1974 brought to Washington a sizable bloc of young Democrats for whom Vietnam rather than the postwar division of Europe provided their formative foreign policy experience. But while these Democrats shaped the congressional mentality of the era, the mid-1970s also witnessed a dramatic resurgence of the congressional right. Domestically, the social and cultural divisions of the 1960s—intensified by the antigovernment sentiments spawned by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal—produced a climate conducive to the rise of conservatism. Internationally, the conduct of the Soviet Union led a new group of intellectuals—dubbed the neoconservatives—to demand a more assertive U.S. foreign policy.
The sponsors of the Clark and Tunney amendments hardly expected that their passage would open up new avenues for congressional conservatives to influence foreign policy. But over the next ten years, the amendments produced a host of unintended consequences. Their passage further eroded the Cold War institutional structure of Congress, in which the body had sacrificed potent foreign policy tools in deference to executive authority. But if this change represented a short-term victory for congressional liberals, subsequent developments defied expectations that empowering Congress would pave the way for an anti-interventionist, prohuman rights foreign policy. Instead, conservatives proved as successful as their ideological foes in utilizing the revitalized congressional power. Meanwhile, as Cubanbacked forces consolidated their position in Angola, the Clark amendment came under strong attack, beginning a process in which the amendment came to symbolize congressional recklessness and an overly idealistic foreign policy that failed to take into account national security needs.
Throughout much of the post–World War II period, most challenges to the legislature's institutional orthodoxy had come from liberals unhappy with the anticommunist foreign policies of the day. But the Tunney amendment also provided a precedent for members of Congress, regardless of their ideological persuasions, to use rejuvenated congressional power to challenge executive-branch foreign policy. President Jimmy Carter's international agenda suffered the consequences, coming under strong attack from senators who just a few years earlier had tried to block Tunney's initiative. In terms of immediately affecting policy, most of these conservative initiatives failed. But, as occurred with the liberal critics of containment a decade before, impassioned congressional debate framed the national discussion of foreign policy in a way that ultimately worked to the conservatives' advantage.
The newly strengthened conservatives had a more immediate impact on an area of traditional strength: national security policy. This effort culminated in the Senate battle against the SALT II treaty, which became the first arms-control agreement since the early 1950s that did not clear Congress. More important, the conservatives, led by Henry Jackson and Barry Goldwater, succeeded in beating back the Symington-led challenge to national security policy. By the late 1970s, in response to this conservative pressure, liberals such as John Culver, Carl Levin, and Patrick Leahy—the ideological heirs of the dissenters of the early 1960s—were on the defensive, attempting to show how their military philosophy would not undermine the U.S. position in the world. Conservatives again dominated debate over the armed services. The late 1970s and early 1980s thus joined the McCarranite era of the early 1950s as rare periods when the congressional right set the national agenda on foreign policy issues.
The growth of the congressional right also helped seal the fate of the foreign policy framework laws passed in the early 1970s, the most prominent of which was the War Powers Act of 1973. In contrast to domestic affairs, where the increasing tendency to handle through judicial or investigatory means disputes that previously would have been classified as political tended to increase congressional power, the last fifteen years of the Cold War featured the failure of the War Powers Act and other measures designed to restore the balance between the executive and Congress to work as their sponsors had desired. (The War Powers Act, for instance, required the president to obtain congressional approval within sixty days of initiating any overseas military authorization. But because the measure gave the president the authority to decide when to start the sixty-day clock, it has proven impossible to enforce.) In part, these initiatives did surprisingly little to alter the fundamental balance between the two branches because the legislation placed such a high priority on abstract constitutional concerns. By making their offerings such a frontal challenge to presidential authority, the sponsors of framework legislation almost always needed to gain a two-thirds majority in both chambers to overcome a presidential veto. But to achieve this goal, they needed to water down their proposals, as in the War Powers Act, when John Stennis insisted on a host of concessions that weakened the bill in exchange for his supporting the measure.
For example, the Cooper-Church Amendment, which cut off funds for Richard Nixon's secret incursion into Cambodia in 1970, was notable for the willingness of its sponsors to deny that its adoption would constrain the powers of the commander in chief, to decline to call for an instant cutoff of funding for the incursion, and to consent to a modifying amendment upholding the president's power to act in emergency situations to protect the lives of U.S. forces without consulting Congress. Similar developments frustrated congressional attempts to pass a restrictive war powers measure, where negotiations between the House and Senate produced a law limiting the amount of time in which the president could unilaterally send U.S. troops overseas (ninety days) rather than limiting the justifications for such action. The bill also allowed the president to decide when troops were introduced into harm's way, thus triggering the start of the time limit, while a key strengthening amendment to include the CIA under the terms of the bill failed.
Many of the difficulties that had prevented Congress from assuming an active role using such formal assertions of its power persisted throughout the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, congressional investigations into the intelligence community produced less comprehensive reforms and more political problems for their champions than could have been anticipated when the hearings began in 1975. For example, Frank Church found that his chairing the Senate committee investigating CIA matters interfered with his pursuit of the 1976 Democratic nomination for president; his House counterpart, Otis Pike of New York, oversaw such an unruly inquiry that his report was repudiated by the House, and he retired from Congress two years later. And although both chambers ultimately established intelligence oversight committees, the CIA proved effective at using a variety of tactics to frustrate attempts at vigorous oversight, particularly during the tenure of Director William Casey, who served from 1981 until his death in 1987.
Casey's boss, President Ronald Reagan, received an overwhelming majority in 1980, carrying forty-four states and bringing with him a Republican-controlled Senate. Foreign policy played a key role in his campaign, as Reagan called for a massive arms buildup and a renewed ideological confrontation with the Soviets. In addition, the GOP nominee explicitly argued that Congress had grown too powerful and implicitly suggested that congressional actions (such as the Clark amendment) had harmed U.S. national security. Because Republicans controlled the Senate for most of his tenure, Reagan faced less effective opposition from the upper chamber than, arguably, any chief executive in the twentieth century. The House offered a different story: Democrats gained twenty-six seats in the 1982 election and had a comfortable working majority for the rest of the 1980s. Led by the partisan House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr., and Majority Leader Jim Wright, surviving Watergate-era Democrats such as Thomas J. Downey, Michael Barnes, and Mike Synar came into their own during Reagan's tenure. In the process they made the House as formidable a foreign policy force as at any point in American history.
The Reagan years yielded a mixed legacy regarding congressional power. As had been the case essentially since their passage, the War Powers Act and other framework legislation failed to bolster congressional power. Reagan undertook three provocative military operations during his presidency, sending armed forces to Lebanon and Grenada and launching air strikes against Libya. The Libyan and Grenadan operations ended quickly, but, particularly in the case of Grenada (where the United States sent troops to topple a Marxist government), there seemed to be no justification for not invoking the War Powers Act. The president called the marines sent to Lebanon "peacekeepers," but the peace they kept favored the Maronite Christian president in the country's long-running civil war. Facing congressional criticism, the administration negotiated a compromise in which it promised to seek legislative authorization if the intervention lasted longer than eighteen months. Even in this instance, Reagan maintained that the decision did not imply that he recognized the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, and, indeed, Congress's willingness to accept the plan essentially made the 1973 law a dead letter. In the end, the troops were withdrawn before the eighteen-month limit after the bombing of the marines stationed at the U.S. embassy in Beirut.
While the Reagan years shattered hopes that the framework legislation could succeed, the 1980s did show that—as Gouverneur Morris and James Madison long before had predicted—the power of the purse provided an important tool for Congress to influence foreign policy. Throughout Reagan's term, members of Congress used appropriations riders, hearings, and other unconventional methods to challenge the administration's foreign policy, especially toward the Third World. Few would have predicted this development in the late 1970s, when conservative critics targeted initiatives like the Clark amendment and other congressional expressions favoring human rights diplomacy. Theorists such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's first ambassador to the United Nations, recommended distinguishing between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, with the former worthy of support—despite human rights violations—because of the anticommunist nature of most totalitarian governments. This critique grew more powerful as anti-American regimes came to power in Iran and Nicaragua; and Reagan, after his election in 1980, adopted the Kirkpatrick philosophy as his own.
This deemphasis on idealism provided an opening for Reagan's congressional critics. Perhaps the most effective was Michael Barnes, a scholarly Democrat first elected in 1976 who took over as chair of the Inter-American Relations Subcommittee following the defeats of several more senior Democrats in the 1980 elections. Barnes, the first Watergate-era Democrat to chair a foreign policy subcommittee, made the most of his opportunity. Reagan's policy of aiding the contras (anticommunist guerillas attempting to topple the Sandinista government in Nicaragua) dominated the debate regarding 1980s inter-American policy, but Barnes used his position to focus matters on human rights abuses by anticommunist governments in Chile, Uruguay, and Guatemala as well. Congressional criticism also helped cause a shift in U.S. policy toward Chile and the Philippines, where Reagan had come to office pledging to support the dictatorial regimes of Augusto Pinochet and Ferdinand Marcos. Examples of the pattern included senators with such diverse ideological viewpoints as Christopher Dodd, who led the Senate opposition to Reagan's policy in Central America, and Richard Lugar, who helped persuade the Reagan administration to end U.S. support for Marcos's regime in the Philippines. Moreover, a congressional willingness to use the appropriations power set the stage for the most important scandal of the Reagan years, the Iran-Contra affair, when the administration covertly funneled arms to anticommunist forces in Central America in direct contravention of the Boland Amendment. The revelation of the affair in late 1986 severely impaired Reagan's political standing and damaged his historical legacy.