TSG IntelBrief: Congress Asserts Its Foreign Policy Authority
July 14, 2017

Congress Asserts Its Foreign Policy Authority


Bottom Line Up Front:

• In the context of the Trump administration’s chaotic foreign policy, Congress has been increasingly asserting its authority over U.S. foreign policy.

• On issues from foreign aid to sanctions, Congress is often in open and bipartisan contradiction with the Executive Branch.

• Congress is renewing efforts to craft a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

• The Trump administration’s lack of credibility on the world stage portends a greater role for Congress in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.


As the foreign policy of the Trump administration maintains its distinctly chaotic trajectory, the U.S. Congress is increasingly attempting to use the full breadth of its constitutionally-mandated power to maintain a degree of consistency and credibility in U.S. foreign policy. Since the President took office on January 20, the Legislative Branch has used a variety of tools—often in a bipartisan manner—to exert its albeit limited constitutional authority over a wide range of issues related to foreign policy.

On the issue of foreign aid—a key tool for bolstering the security and stability of U.S. allies and partners—Congress has largely rejected the deep cuts proposed by the Trump administration. As the FY2018 budget is currently being hashed out in Congress, proposed cuts to military and economic aid to fledgling U.S. allies in the Middle East like Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, have either been scaled back or completely rejected in a largely bipartisan manner. Congress has likewise vowed to resist draconian cuts to the U.S. State Department in general, making clear that they do not share the president’s tendency to view foreign policy as a primarily economic enterprise.

As the Trump administration raises doubts over its commitment to long-standing allies and policies, Congress has also used its power to clarify U.S. positions—often in contradiction to the Trump administration—on a range of foreign policy matters. After President Trump’s failure to clearly and vocally endorse the mutual defense clause in the founding treaty of NATO, Congress passed a resolution reaffirming the U.S. commitment to its NATO allies and to the clause itself. As concerns grow over the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia, the Senate’s recent 98-2 vote to impose new sanctions on Moscow—with restrictions on the President’s ability to lift those sanctions—demonstrates that a strong majority continues to view Russia as a hostile adversary. In response to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia that challenge America’s historic commitment to human rights—especially as the civilian death toll from Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen continues to mount—a bipartisan group of Senators introduced legislation that would restrict the provision of arms to Riyadh over human rights concerns. While that legislation narrowly failed in the Senate, it achieved a surprising level of bipartisan support, serving as a warning to the Trump administration that Congress is in a position to exercise its oversight authorities where issues of human rights are concerned. 

The combination of an erratic Executive Branch and growing instability on a variety of national security fronts has added impetus to Congressional efforts to craft a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Long before the election of President Trump, a growing consensus emerged among members of Congress, as well as the public at large, regarding the need for a new AUMF. There is now a large degree of bipartisan agreement that the continued use of the original 2001 AUMF—passed in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks—as the ongoing legal basis for waging war against a host of terrorist groups presents an unreasonable de facto expansion of the President’s war making powers, possibly beyond those prescribed in article two of the U.S. constitution. The U.S. has now been waging war for 16 years without an official declaration to that effect, yet the AUMF has been used as the legal basis for military operations in fourteen countries, against groups ranging from al-Shabaab in Somalia to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many in Congress have argued that the apparent ‘blank check’ of the 2001 AUMF is evidence that the Legislative Branch has failed to exercise its foreign policy role as mandated in article one of the constitution, which explicitly grants Congress the responsibility to declare war.  

A recently revised bipartisan draft of new AUMF legislation proposed by Senators Kaine (D-VA) and Flake (R-AZ) would provide new legislative checks on the President’s ability to unilaterally expand the scope and nature of the fight against terrorist groups. The law would repeal the original AUMF and replace it with another that would specify three terrorist groups against which the President could use military force: al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State,  and the Taliban. It would also give Congress greater say over how the President targets potential offshoots or allies of these groups, as well as the countries in which the President may order the use of military force in certain circumstances. 

While the role of Congress in conducting foreign affairs is relatively limited compared to the Executive Branch, the conduct of ‘the people’s branch’—reliant on consensus and considered a more direct reflection of constituents’ views—carries a degree of gravitas. As U.S. allies attempt to decipher the often contradictory messages coming out of the Trump administration, Congress will likely play an increasingly important role in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.


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