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US Foreign Policy Powers, Congress and the President

US Foreign Policy Powers

The separation of powers in the United States has spawned a great deal of debate over the roles of the President and the Congress in foreign affairs, as well as over the limits on their respective authorities. In recent years, presidents have accumulated power at the expense of Congress as part of a pattern in which, during times of war or national emergency, the executive branch tends to eclipse the legislature.

By: Rana Shahzad Advocate

The US Constitution parcels out foreign affairs powers to both the executive and legislative branches. It grants some powers, like command of the military, exclusively to the president and others, like the regulation of foreign commerce, to Congress, while still others it divides among the two or simply does not assign.

Congressional Powers in Foreign Affairs

Article I of the US Constitution enumerates several of Congress’s foreign affairs powers, including those to “regulate commerce with foreign nations,” “declare war,” “raise and support armies,” “provide and maintain a navy,” and “make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”

The Constitution also makes two of the president’s foreign affairs powers – making treaties and appointing diplomats – dependent on Senate approval.

A. General Powers

Congress has some general powers as well. They are: to “lay and collect taxes,” to “draw money from the Treasury,” and to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper”. These powers, collectively, allow legislators to influence nearly all foreign policy issues. For example, the 114th Congress (2015–2017) passed laws on topics ranging from electronic surveillance to North Korea sanctions to border security to wildlife trafficking. In one noteworthy instance, lawmakers overrode President Barack Obama’s veto to enact a law allowing victims of international terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments.

B. Oversight Role

Congress also plays an oversight role. The annual appropriations process allows congressional committees to review in detail the budgets and programmes of the vast military and diplomatic bureaucracies. Lawmakers must sign off on more than a trillion dollars in federal spending every year, of which more than half is allocated to defence and international affairs. Lawmakers may also stipulate how that money is to be spent. For instance, Congress repeatedly barred the Obama administration from using funds to transfer detainees out of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

C. Investigation Powers

Congress has broad authority to conduct investigations into particular foreign policy or national security concerns. High-profile inquiries in recent years have centred on the 9/11 attacks, the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation programmes, and the 2012 attack on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

Furthermore, Congress has the power to create, eliminate, or restructure executive branch agencies, which it has often done after major conflicts or crises. In the wake of World War II, Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947, which established the CIA and National Security Council. Following the 9/11 attacks, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security.

Presidential Powers in Foreign Affairs


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