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.
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