Acquiescence and Repudiation: Assessing the Balance of Power Between Congress and the Executive in Foreign Policy Since Vietnam

Foreign policy implementation in the United States is shaped by two particular circumstances. For one, there is the prevalence of War in the international system; second is a situation known as “Repudiation.” When the United States is situated in war, Congress usually responds to the Executive through acquiescence. Examples of Congressional acquiescence to the Executive are the “Gulf of Tonkin” Resolution in 1964 and the war resolution after the September 11 attacks. War can trigger what is known to be the “rally around the flag” syndrome. It is also quite interesting that the “rally around the flag” syndrome has an institutional basis, as noted by Louis Fisher: “The need to trust in executive judgment and discretion for defensive actions more accurately represents the understanding of the framers.”[1]However, the question of whether American actions have been defensive and thus credible and legitimate in the 21st century is a matter of dispute.

On the other hand, “repudiation” occurs when Congress, as a result of public opinion and congressional partisanship, disapproves of the manner in which foreign policy and war are being carried out by the president. Howell and Pevehouse mention that the “partisan composition of Congress has historically been the decisive factor in determining whether lawmakers will oppose or acquiesce in presidential calls for war.” Whether Congress has a tendency of acquiescing to the actions of the Executive branch or repudiating its implementation of what it deems as the foreign policy of the nation is something that is worthy of evaluation and observation.  

Davidson and Oleszek employ the term “repudiator” in the sense that those presidents who are elected for the purpose of “repudiating” the sitting president wield a strong popular mandate and can define their own policies and implement them.[2] Yet, since World War II, there has been a pattern of continuity rather than change in the foreign policy of successive American presidents, and if there has been any repudiation of American foreign policy within the government, it has come largely from either Congress or the American public. The President, as history indicates, has often been the “initiator” in the realm of foreign policy, aimed largely at the accomplishment of objectives that have remained constant from one administration to another, with the exception of America’s current president, namely, Donald Trump.

According to Crenson and Ginsberg, the framers of the Constitution had convinced themselves that “’energy’ should reside in the executive” and that “[the] president acts and Congress reacts.”[3] Initiation gave way to executive primacy in the realm of foreign policy, and it was expected that there would be some form of congressional counteraction to executive actions. Schlesinger uses the example of Woodrow Wilson and his push for the institutionalization of “Wilsonian Internationalism.” Schlesinger stated that Wilson’s project “floundered” because

  1. Wilson made it to appear as an “executive branch project,” and
  2. Wilson seemed to make it a “party project,” thereby alienating Republicans who were interested in assisting him.[4]

As the case of Woodrow Wilson shows, Congress can use its constitutional powers to obstruct presidential activism, especially when there are partisan political lines drawn between Congress and the President.

Thus, Congress holds no qualms in playing the role of “repudiator” when it comes to foreign policy matters. Another mechanism through which Congress can repudiate presidential initiatives is through its “power of the purse,” which manifests in its ability to appropriate funds for the execution of foreign policy. When demanding that the President have full control over the operations of the newly founded “Department of Homeland Security” (DHS) that was designed to play an instrumental role in the prosecution of the “War on Terror,” George W. Bush faced stiff resistance from the Senate and particularly from the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WVA), the head of the Appropriations Committee. Byrd exerted his “ability to extend debate” in the Senate and as a result the passage of the bill on DHS was delayed, much to the dismay of President Bush.

The often formidable combination of appropriations power and partisanship helps Congress assert its fundamental role in the making of not only foreign policy, but mostly in the realm of domestic policy: “In cases where presidents have abused their spending authority, Congress has responded by writing more specific statutes.”[5] Abuse of power on the part of the executive served as the rationale for the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Furthermore, the cessation of executive funding on the part of Congress was what led to the official termination of American involvement in Vietnam in the mid 1970’s. Vietnam is a case that demonstrates the nexus between spending and Congressional power in the making and implementation of American foreign policy.

Since 2001, however, Congress has largely been on defense, and the executive has been on the offensive when it comes to the engineering and execution of American foreign policy. For one, the Joint Resolution of September 14, 2001 saps the balance and equilibrium that once existed between the Executive and Congress through the War Powers Resolution (WPR) of 1973. The 2001 resolution may state that it does not “supersede” the War Powers Resolution, but in reality, the 2001 resolution replaces WPR. In turn, the 2001 resolution creates a peculiar emergency situation that is unprecedented. When Richard Nixon indulged in war operations against Cambodia in a highly secretive manner, Congressional and popular reaction to Nixon’s excesses were severe and consequential. Today, no such congressional reaction is evident. Schlesinger uses the example of Nixon to suggest that “[the] perennial threat to the constitutional balance…arises in the field of foreign affairs.”[6]Due to foreign affairs in the 21st century, the constitutional balance between the Executive and Congress no longer exists.

The reason why the War Powers Resolution (WPR) of 1973 was created was precisely for the solidification of balance and power equilibrium between the Executive and Congress in the realm of foreign policy and national security. WPR was intended to define this perceived constitutional balance that apparently did not preexist in the U.S. constitution. Article II simply determines the role of the President as “commander-in-chief” of the armed forces, and as head statesman due to the President’s responsibilities regarding the appointment of ambassadors and the forging of treaties. Congress, on the other hand, possesses the Article I power to “declare” war and to raise the forces for a war. With a volunteer military force in the United States, the executive largely has a free hand in the employment of American military forces, and the 2001 resolution ensures executive freedom in the employment of military force in the way of accomplishing parochial objectives and secretive goals.

The War Powers Resolution (WPR) of 1973 rendered Congress as something more than just a mere rubberstamp body. Under WPR, the President must attain Congressional approval within 60 days after the commencement of a war. Otherwise, the President must rescind the war. However, even though the War Powers Resolution of 1973 sought to address the issue of the “constitutional balance” between Congress and the President in the realm of foreign policy, one can still argue with a certain degree of confidence that the War Powers Resolution of 1973 does not ensure a balance of power and power equilibrium between the Executive and Congress in the realm of foreign policy and national security. Rather, one can argue that WPR failed in correcting an imbalance that favors the President in matters of war and foreign policy. After all, “[the] making of U.S. foreign policy hinges on how U.S. national interests are defined and the means chosen to achieve them. This process is deeply, and unavoidably, political.”[7]

The process of defining national interests is also complicated by the inherent ambiguity of the constitution in regards to the role of Congress and President in the creation of foreign policy. In the end, Crenson and Ginsberg use Terry Moe’s quote to argue that the President reigns supreme: “Presidents…have both the will and the ability to promote the power of their own institution, but individual legislators have neither and cannot be expected to promote the power of Congress as a whole in any coherent, forceful way.”[8] This explains the acquiescent nature of both the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and the Joint Resolution of September 14, 2001 which allowed for the President to take the initiative in matters pertaining to foreign policy and national security.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 did establish Congress’s ability to halt presidential activity, but to do so would mean that Congress would have to muster up the will to halt a President that is vested with significant powers through the nature of war in the modern and postmodern era, which in turn requires a steady hand based on the continuity and concentration of policy and strategy. In turn, presidents tap into the intellectual class as well as the bureaucracy for support when these two entities are not at odds with the president’s vision. The only viable mechanisms available to halt executive activity in the realm of foreign policy, as mentioned before, are appropriations and public disapproval. But only special circumstances can render these mechanisms effective.

Davidson and Oleszek note that “presidential proposals are likely to achieve more success in the international than the domestic arena, in part because Congress asserts itself more in domestic policymaking than the foreign policy field.”[9] Furthermore, as mentioned in a previous essay, the American public remains largely aloof from foreign policy matters. Despite a highly unpopular war in Iraq in the early 21st century, a largely Democratic Congress acquiesced to the “surge” despite the fact that the public gave Congress a mandate to end the Iraq war in the 2006 congressional elections. Also, when a president loses his popular mandate, does that necessarily mean Congress has attained it? Mann and Ornstein see mandates as being “not objective realities but subjective interpretations of elections posited by victorious candidates or parties and accepted by the broader political community.”[10] After all, the Congress that engineered the War Powers Resolution of 1973 sought to mitigate the initiating role of the Executive despite the president’s popular mandate stemming from the 1972 elections.

Because of the rather minority view that the 2001 resolution does not supersede the WPR of 1973, some have argued that there is no ‘imperial presidency’ or executive within the U.S. government. In fact, the “imperial presidency” is something that is “conditional, fragile, and revocable,” and in reality the president and the executive are “contingently imperial.”[11]Moreover, the American system of governance is an adversarial system in which the different branches — each with equal power — can either engage in cooperation or conflict with one another. According to Louis Fisher: “Armed with powers of self-defense, the branches of government intersect in various patterns of cooperation and conflict.”[12]Thus, the imbalance that favors the president as a result of the 2001 resolution seems to be preferential on the part of Congress. Despite the fact that Congress and the American public have the power to correct the imbalance, the policy of global hegemony and the strategy of offensive war has taken congressional and public deliberation out of the foreign policy equation to a great extent.


[1] Fisher, Pg. 250.

[2] Davidson and Oleszek, Pg. 314.

[3] Crenson and Ginsberg, Pg. 213

[4] Schlesinger, Pg. 7

[5] Nelson, Pg. 418.

[6] Schlesinger, Pg 45.

[7] Howell and Pevehouse, “When Congress Stops Wars”

[8] Crenson and Ginsberg, Pg. 190.

[9] Davidson and Oleszek, Pg 315.

[10] “The Broken Branch”, Pg. 99

[11] Rudalevige, Chapter 1, Pg. 15.

[12] Fisher, Pg. 17.

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