The End of Foreign Relations

Richard Lugar’s defeat shows the diminished power of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s not the prestigious assignment of days past.

Sen. Richard Lugar  leaves following a concession speech Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Indianapolis. Lugar lost his Republican Senate primary on Tuesday to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.  (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
National Journal
Dan Friedman
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Dan Friedman
May 10, 2012, noon

The primary de­feat of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., this week is also a loss for the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, on which Lugar is rank­ing mem­ber, and an em­blem of Con­gress’s slow sur­render of power over in­ter­na­tion­al af­fairs.

The For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee of yore — the pan­el that the late Chair­man J. Wil­li­am Ful­bright, D-Ark., fam­ously used to op­pose the John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion on Vi­et­nam and that Henry Cabot Lodge, R-Mass., headed when he helped block rat­i­fic­a­tion of the Treaty of Ver­sailles after World War I — is his­tory. The com­mit­tee even lacks the mod­est power it had when Lugar broke with the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion in the 1980s to pass sanc­tions on South Africa to pres­sure it to end apartheid.

Now, for the first time in 36 years, it will lack Lugar, who may prove to be one of the last sen­at­ors to make for­eign policy the fo­cus of a Sen­ate ca­reer.

For­eign Re­la­tions re­tains some of the prestige and pub­li­city po­ten­tial that at­tracts sen­at­ors aim­ing for high­er of­fice. “I still think the com­mit­tee is an im­port­ant place to be,” said Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., who joined the pan­el last year. But a shrink­ing le­gis­lat­ive port­fo­lio is cur­tail­ing the com­mit­tee’s power.

Al­though For­eign Re­la­tions re­tains jur­is­dic­tion over treat­ies, the dif­fi­culty of win­ning the re­quired Sen­ate su­per­ma­jor­ity of 67 votes makes treaty rat­i­fic­a­tion rare. Wit­ness the dec­ades-long fail­ure to rat­i­fy a Law of the Sea Treaty. The White House is in­creas­ingly ink­ing agree­ments, such as the one that Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced with Afgh­anistan early this month, that do not need Sen­ate ap­prov­al.

The com­mit­tee’s re­cent con­tri­bu­tion to de­bates about U.S. mil­it­ary ac­tion abroad is non­bind­ing res­ol­u­tions, such as the one last year on U.S. ac­tion in Libya and a pending de­clar­a­tion on Syr­ia. Al­though the ex­ec­ut­ive branch can cite these meas­ures as evid­ence of sup­port for its policies, the non­bind­ing bills only ad­vert­ise le­gis­lat­ors’ fail­ure to as­sert au­thor­ity to block ex­ec­ut­ive-branch ac­tion abroad.

Con­gress hasn’t passed a for­eign-aid au­thor­iz­a­tion bill since 1985. The meas­ures stopped mov­ing be­cause of the polit­ic­al vul­ner­ab­il­ity of for­eign aid and their tend­ency to at­tract pois­on-pill amend­ments, said Charles Steven­son, who stud­ies con­gres­sion­al power over na­tion­al se­cur­ity at the Johns Hop­kins School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies.

Fail­ure to ex­ert their power on in­ter­na­tion­al aid leaves House and Sen­ate com­mit­tees with nom­in­al jur­is­dic­tion over for­eign policy without lever­age to im­pose their pref­er­ences. The Armed Ser­vices com­mit­tees, by con­trast, use an­nu­al ap­prov­al of a de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill to in­flu­ence Pentagon policy. Ap­pro­pri­at­ors’ yearly ap­prov­al of for­eign aid also gives them power.

Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Kerry, D-Mass., told Na­tion­al Journ­al that sen­at­ors still ex­er­cise “enorm­ous” prerog­at­ives over for­eign policy. Sen. Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn., whose seni­or­ity puts him in line to suc­ceed Lugar as the top com­mit­tee Re­pub­lic­an, begs to dif­fer.

“I am very dis­ap­poin­ted in the feck­less nature of the com­mit­tee,” Cork­er said. “Why don’t we have non­stop hear­ings on Ir­an?” he asked. “Why don’t we have non­stop hear­ings on Syr­ia? I mean, why are we not do­ing it?”

Cork­er, who is com­plet­ing just his first Sen­ate term this year, will gain seni­or­ity be­cause longer-serving Re­pub­lic­ans avoid the com­mit­tee — an­oth­er sign of its di­min­ished clout. (The pan­el’s lack of jur­is­dic­tion over sec­tors that gen­er­ate cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions is a factor.) Re­pub­lic­ans prom­in­ently in­volved in de­fense is­sues, such as Sens. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona, Jon Kyl of Ari­zona, and Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina, pro­mote their views else­where.

The de­cline of For­eign Re­la­tions re­flects the gen­er­al weak­ness of a le­gis­lat­ive branch that has spent 60 years re­treat­ing from its con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity to de­clare war, ad­voc­ates of le­gis­lat­ive prerog­at­ives say.

“Year by year, skir­mish by skir­mish, the role of the Con­gress in de­term­in­ing where the U.S. mil­it­ary would op­er­ate, and when the awe­some power of our weapon sys­tems would be un­leashed, has di­min­ished,” Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said in a speech on Wed­nes­day, when he in­tro­duced a long-shot bill re­quir­ing con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al of so-called hu­man­it­ari­an in­ter­ven­tions abroad.

Law­makers like to say that polit­ics stops at the wa­ter’s edge. But con­gres­sion­al weak­ness on for­eign policy re­flects polit­ic­al pres­sure, not its ab­sence. In a body ul­ti­mately driv­en by elect­or­al in­cent­ives, bat­tling the White House on mat­ters of war and peace usu­ally doesn’t pay polit­ic­al di­vidends.

Con­gress last year did buck the ad­min­is­tra­tion to im­pose sanc­tions on for­eign fin­an­cial in­sti­tu­tions that do busi­ness with Ir­an’s Cent­ral Bank. In 2009, law­makers blocked Obama from clos­ing the Guantá­namo Bay de­ten­tion camp for ter­ror­ism sus­pects. But mem­bers took those steps be­cause both parties saw it as good polit­ics to take a more hawk­ish po­s­i­tion than the White House.

Lugar’s fo­cus on for­eign af­fairs didn’t cost him the primary, but it didn’t help much. Hav­ing his name on a pro­gram to se­cure nuc­le­ar weapons in former So­viet states cre­ates few jobs in In­di­ana. His op­pos­i­tion to mil­it­ary ac­tion in Libya without con­gres­sion­al au­thor­ity may have mattered less to Re­pub­lic­an voters than his votes for Obama’s Su­preme Court nom­in­ees.

This sug­gests why new sen­at­ors are not in­ter­ested in rep­lic­at­ing Lugar’s ca­reer. It would prob­ably be im­possible. 

Sara Sorcher contributed to this article.
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