Congressional Power

Robert David Johnson

Executive agents dominated the international environment into which the newly independent United States entered. Absolute monarchs ruled in Prussia, Russia, and Austria, vested with nearly absolute control of their nation's conduct in world affairs. In France, the Estates-General had no effective voice in foreign policy. And even England, despite the growth in parliamentary power following the Glorious Revolution, maintained the fiction of executive unilateralism on national security matters.

By producing a government that vested substantial foreign policy powers in an elected legislature, the American Revolution truly was revolutionary. But the complicated structure established by the Constitution provided few clear boundaries separating Congress from the president, resulting in an almost constant struggle between the two branches. Apart from this internal contest for power, a few patterns have remained constant over most of American history. First, periods of divided government (in which party or ideological gulfs separated the two branches)β€”the 1850s, the late 1910s, the late 1960s and 1970sβ€”have produced the most spectacular clashes between Congress and the president. But the more substantial shifts in power, usually to the disadvantage of Congress, have come when one party, normally operating with effective presidential leadership, has firmly controlled both branches of government. Such was the case under Thomas Jefferson at the beginning of the 1800s, William McKinley at the end of the century, Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, and Lyndon B. Johnson during the mid-1960s. Second, because Congress has tended to feature more dissenting voices, of both the left and the right, when the legislature has exerted its influence it frequently has pushed U.S. foreign policy toward ideological extremes. Finally, the concept of congressional power has been an inherently flexible one. While the abilities to declare war and to approve treaties are the most obvious grants of foreign policy authority the legislature received, Congress has more consistently made its presence felt on international questions through other tools, especially the appropriations power.


Accinelli, Robert. "Eisenhower, Congress, and the 1954–1955 Offshore Island Crisis." Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (spring 1990): 329–344. A good study of the limits of congressional power during the Eisenhower years.

Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition. Cambridge and New York, 1987. The best published study of the League of Nations battle in the Senate.

Arnson, Cynthia. Crossroads: Congress, the Reagan Administration, and Central America. New York, 1989.

Ashby, LeRoy. The Spearless Leader: Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920s. Urbana, Ill., 1972. The best biography of the career of the 1920s Foreign Relations Committee chair.

Banks, William C., and Peter Raven-Hansen. National Security Law and the Power of the Purse. New York, 1994.

Bernstein, Barton, and Franklin Leib. "Progressive Republican Senators and American Imperialism: A Reappraisal." Mid-America 50 (1968): 163–205. An excellent study of the relationship between congressional power and liberal dissent before World War I.

Blechman, Barry M. The Politics of National Security: Congress and U.S. Defense Policy. New York, 1990. A nicely done study of how Congress has influenced national security matters since World War II.

Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–45. Lincoln, Neb., 1983.

Franck, Thomas M., ed. The Tethered Presidency: Congressional Restraints on Executive Power. New York, 1981. A somewhat dated volume that remains valuable for the depth of its coverage.

Franck, Thomas M., and Edward Weisband. Foreign Policy by Congress. New York, 1979.

Gaskin, Thomas M. "Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the Eisenhower Administration, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1957–1960." Presidential Studies Quarterly 24 (spring 1994): 337–353.

Gibbons, William Conrad. The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships. 4 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1986–1995. The standard account of Congress and the Vietnam War.

Gleijeses, Piero. "The Limits of Sympathy: The United States and the Independence of Spanish America." Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (1992): 481–505.

Griffith, Robert. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. Lexington, Ky., 1970.

Hietala, Thomas R. Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985. A good model of integrating congressional history with the broader study of U.S. foreign relations.

Hinckley, Barbara. Less Than Meets the Eye: Foreign Policy Making and the Myth of the Assertive Congress. Chicago, 1994.

Hoyt, Steven, and Steven Baker, eds. Legislating Foreign Policy. Boulder, Colo., 1984.

Johnson, Loch K. A Season of Inquiry: Congress and Intelligence. Chicago, 1988.

Lindsay, James M. Congress and the Politics of U.S. Defense Policy. Baltimore, 1994. Much broader than its title suggests, the best book to date on Congress and the Cold War.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. A remarkable example of how including the congressional perspective enriches the writing of international history.

Olmsted, Kathryn S. Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996.

Pastor, Robert A. Congress and the Politics of U.S. Foreign Economic Policy, 1929–1976. Berkeley, Calif., 1980.

Paterson, Thomas G. "Presidential Foreign Policy, Public Opinion, and Congress: The Truman Years." Diplomatic History 3 (1979): 1–21.

Rakove, Jack N. "Solving a Constitutional Puzzle: The Treatymaking Clause as a Case Study." Perspectives in American History, n.s. 1(1984): 207–248. The most thoroughly researched piece on congressional power in foreign affairs and the Constitutional Convention.

Reichard, Gary W. "Divisions and Dissent: Democrats and Foreign Policy, 1952–1956." Political Science Quarterly 93 (1978): 37–65. A solid study of the Democrats' "limited dissent."

Ripley, Randall B., and James M. Lindsay, eds. Congress Resurgent: Foreign and Defense Policy on Capitol Hill. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993.

Schoultz, Lars. Human Rights and United States Policy Toward Latin America. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Small, Melvin. Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1789–1994. Baltimore, 1996.

Smist, Frank. Congress Oversees the Intelligence Community, 1947–1989. Knoxville, Tenn., 1994.

Stone, Ralph. The Irreconcilables: The Fight Against the League of Nations. Lexington, Ky., 1970.

Widenor, William C. Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy. Berkeley, Calif., 1981. A model in congressional biography, of Wilson's leading foe in the League of Nations fight.

Woods, Randall Bennett. Fulbright: A Biography. New York, 1995. A much-needed study of arguably the most powerful Foreign Relations Committee chair in U.S. history.

See also Ambassadors, Executive Agents, and Special Representatives ; Bipartisanship ; The Constitution ; Elitism ; Foreign Aid ; Presidential Power ; Public Opinion ; Treaties .

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