In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Congress, Defense, and Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Texts and Readers
  • Journals
  • Historical Perspectives on Congress and Foreign Affairs
  • Power of the Purse and Foreign Affairs
  • Congressional Support for the President
  • Congress and Public Discourse About Foreign Affairs
  • Congressional Elections and the Consequences of War

Political Science Congress, Defense, and Foreign Policy
Linda L. Fowler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0127


Congressional scholars, like members of the House and Senate, have paid far more attention to domestic affairs than to foreign and defense policy. For much of the era after the Second World War, the president dominated the international arena buoyed by the vast national security bureaucracy and the deference of lawmakers fearful of nuclear war. Scholars saw little knowledge to be gained, apparently, in examining legislative activity during the Cold War consensus that stretched from 1947 to 1968. In hindsight, less consensus and less deference prevailed during that period than many observers assumed. With the legitimacy of the presidency in tatters after Vietnam and Watergate, however, Congress entered a period of resurgence. Lawmakers attempted greater control over military action through the War Powers Resolution and the creation of new committees to monitor the intelligence community, and they dramatically increased the frequency of oversight hearings. The activism lasted into the 1990s and continued until members of Congress lapsed into quiescence after 9/11. The renewed activity on the Hill following Watergate stimulated scholarly interest in the activities of lawmakers with respect to foreign affairs. The questions were similar to those of previous decades, despite variation in congressional influence and scholarly efforts to explain it. The debate about the constitutional prerogatives of the executive and legislative branches, for example, remained a lively one, with the preponderance of scholarly opinion assigning greater weight to Congress than presidents have been willing to concede. In addition, evidence regarding the extent of legislative influence over foreign policy decisions remained contestable, as scholars grappled with inadequate data, “hidden hand” maneuvers of actors in both branches, and tendencies among lawmakers to assess defense programs with an eye to local economic benefits. Despite the numerous analyses of events in which Congress engaged the president, the triggers for legislative interventions and their impact on policy decisions have remained unclear. Increasingly, researchers have identified lawmakers’ primary power as the ability to organize public discourse about foreign affairs and cue citizens to potential problems with the president’s actions. This is a formidable weapon if members choose to use it—or if presidents fear they might. Nevertheless, the president retained a decided advantage in the “struggle” with Congress, even to the extent of gaining additional leverage in domestic matters. Whatever the level of legislative activity and influence, members of Congress appear to pay for presidents’ unpopular wars at election time. Unable to escape the consequences of executive discretion, lawmakers may yet revive their capacity for participation in the realm of foreign affairs and stimulate a new round of research. Several more recent essays, however, suggest that lawmakers have proved unable or unwilling to challenge President Obama effectively or assert themselves in dealing with President Trump.

General Overviews

Scholars who specialize in legislative studies generally reject the idea that the framers intended to subordinate Congress to the president in international affairs. The works in this section share three common themes in reviewing congressional involvement in foreign and defense policy: (1) an agreement that lawmakers have delegated many of their substantial prerogatives to the president, (2) a recognition that the institution’s localism and coordination problems inhibit consistent and responsible partnership with an executive branch bent on expanding its unilateral powers, and (3) a view that Congress has more influence on national security issues than many observers assume. The chief difference among the writers is in their evaluation of the effects of these patterns with some judging members’ performance harshly, such as in Deering 2001, Deering 2005, Fisher 2000, Fowler 2011, and other works concluding that Congress still acts as a counterweight to executive power, such as in Lindsay 2012, laFeber 1994, Tananbaum 1994, and Wolfensberger 2005.

  • Deering, Christopher J. “Principle or Party? Foreign and National Security Policymaking in the Senate.” In The Contentious Senate: Partisanship, Ideology and the Myth of Cool Judgment. Edited by Colton C. Campbell and Nicol C. Rae, 21–42. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

    The author focuses on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees and concludes that the former has retained a more robust presence in international affairs than the latter because of institutional and membership changes.

  • Deering, Christopher J. “Foreign Affairs and War.” In The Legislative Branch and American Democracy: Institutions and Performance. Edited by Paul J. Quirk and Sarah Binder, 349–381. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Deering expands on his earlier article (Deering 2001) to cover Congress as a whole. The author distinguishes between diplomacy, which requires significant executive discretion, and security, which actively engages legislative authority over war. Deering reviews four major functions of Congress: to authorize defense and international programs, to establish rules for trade and tariffs, to advise and consent to nominations and treaties, and and to oversee program implementation. Deering concludes that “Congress likely will [leave] the conduct of foreign affairs and war largely to the discretion of the president” (p. 376).

  • Fisher, Louis. Congressional Abdication on War and Spending. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000.

    The author is an advocate of the “congressionalist” perspective on foreign affairs and, hence, one of the institution’s fiercest critics. This book is the classic assessment of all that is wrong with the institution and is widely cited.

  • Fowler, Linda L. “Congressional War Powers.” In The Oxford Handbook of the American Congress. Edited by Eric Schickler and Frances E. Lee, 812–833. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Fowler is also a “congressionalist” in her approach to foreign policy and concentrates on the costs to the public and the presidency when Congress does not fulfill its responsibilities to promote public discourse and sustain the constitutional balance of power.

  • LaFeber, Walter. “Congress, the Executive and Foreign Policy.” In The Encyclopedia of the American Legislative System. Vol. 3. Edited by Joel H. Silbey, 1439–1454. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994.

    This review article summarizes key conflicts between the president and Congress to show how party competition has shaped the evolution of their relationship over time.

  • Lindsay, James M. “The Shifting Pendulum of Power: Executive-Legislative Relations on American Foreign Policy.” In The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy: Insights and Evidence. 6th ed. Edited by James M. McCormick, 223–238. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

    The author asserts that Congress has “recovered its voice” and become more assertive after deferring to the president after 9/11. Lindsay sees this resurgence as a normal pattern of readjustment between the branches as crises arise and then recede.

  • Tananbaum, Duane. “Congress, the Executive, and War Powers.” In Studies of the Principal Structures, Processes, and Policies of Congress and the State Legislatures since the Colonial Era. Vol. 3 of Encyclopedia of the American Legislative System. Edited by Joel H. Silbey, 1421–1438. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994.

    The author divides American history into distinctive eras, each with its own pattern of interaction between Congress and the presidency, beginning with the early Republic (1789–1845) and ending with the period of resurgence (1973–1993). This is a good summary of defining events that shaped the extra-constitutional development of war powers.

  • Wolfensberger, Donald R. “Congress and Policymaking in an Age of Terrorism.” In Congress Reconsidered. 9th ed. Edited by Lawrence C. Dodd and Bruce I. Oppenheimer, 343–362. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2005.

    The author is a highly respected former staff director for the House Rules Committee, who analyzes the changes that lawmakers made to both the authorization for the war in Iraq and the passage of the Patriot Act. Wolfensberger asserts that Congress has subtle but important ways of constraining the president, even when appearing to defer to the White House.

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