Improving relations with Congress

By Daniel DePetris

Elections in a democracy are by their nature unpredictable. However, what is as clear as day is that whoever becomes the 45th President of the United States will be staring at a full plate of international crises, an economy that is growing slower than anticipated, and a generally dysfunctional and hostile relationship between Republicans and Democrats on and off Capitol Hill. Even the most powerful person on the planet is not capable of tackling all of these problems without a little help from other branches of government. 

This is particularly the case on matters of national security, where bipartisanship, cooperation, and somewhat predicable budgets are absolutely imperative for a strong and unified U.S. foreign policy.  And therein lies one of the most difficult, but immensely important challenges for the next President: improving coordination and trust between the executive and legislative branches to decrease the friction and avoid unnecessary political fights.

As Americans have witnessed over the past seven years, Congress can be an awfully difficult institution to work with.  More often that not, the legislative branch is so preoccupied with infighting (both between and within political parties) that they run out of time to get the most basic jobs done.

Frustration, however, isn't a good enough excuse for the next President to neglect interacting with Congress only when absolutely necessary. In fact, under the U.S. Constitution, there is no excuse to begin with.

A President Clinton or a President Trump can make the environment in Washington better, and they can do so by showing good faith and demanding that Congress return to its rightful and constitutional role as major players and overseers of U.S. foreign policy. These steps could include:

1). Being far more forthcoming in providing information or documents that individual members or committees’ request. Congress is the primary oversight branch of the U.S. Government, and it's perfectly legitimate for questions and document requests to be sent to executive branch officials for consideration. Delayed responses to questions, some of them lasting for months, generate mistrust between the White House and congressional leadership and directly contribute to a dysfunctional myopia in Washington. Cutting down on the wait time and offering briefings on various foreign policy topics to members on a continuous basis is a straightforward way to prevent the mistrust from becoming permanent

2). Supporting efforts hich would establish a joint oversight committee responsible for ensuring that the nuclear agreement with Tehran is being followed by the Iranians and that the IAEA possesses the funding needed to carry out its inspection duties.  Although it's inevitable that a future administration will receive concerns about enforcement regardless, that is precisely the point: the commission will force the executive branch to work with members of Congress to arrive at a common understanding as to the scope of the deal's implementation.

3). Taking President Obama's executive order on targeted killing and submitting the rules, restrictions, and procedures contained in the order for congressional enactment. This means encouraging members of Congress to bring the executive order to the floor for a formal debate and for possible amendment and codifying the order into congressional statute.  The benefits of converting an executive order to a statute are obvious: reporting requirements to the American people on drone strikes and its impact will persist across administrations; it will forbid a future President from unilaterally rescinding the order; and it will bring the drone program further into the public light, where it can be scrutinized on the merits

4). Demonstrate enough confidence in Congress to fulfill its most basic - but solemn and serious - constitutional duty: authorizing the use of U.S. military force overseas.  The last time members of Congress debated and voted on a war resolution was fourteen years ago, when House and Senate lawmakers deliberated on whether it was in the U.S. national interest to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein's regime. Since that time, the world has evolved dramatically: the U.S. is militarily engaged in seven countries against international or regional terrorist networks, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Boko Haram, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Shabaab, and the Islamic State.  An increasing number of legal and foreign policy scholars have come to the realization that the 2001 AUMF is outdated and in dire need of re-tuning. 

Like President Obama, a President Clinton or a President Trump should draft a new war resolution and deliver it to Congress. But unlike President Obama, the new president should sell the resolution personally and order the administration to treat the effort as a constitutional duty instead of a meaningless public relations exercise that is meant to score political points or humiliate the congressional leadership of the opposing party.

All of these recommendations are easier said than done. It may be that the animosity and cut-throat politics in Washington is already too far gone to do much to remedy it.  But the next President has a duty to try, as does the next Congress - an institution that has both abdicated its Article 1 responsibility during the counter-ISIL campaign and has permitted the executive branch to run matters of war and peace almost exclusively. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on August 29, 2016. Read more HERE