Congress and Foreign Policy: An Actionable Agenda for Empowered Engagement in 2021


Ryan Dukeman
Former Research Associate

Key Points

Policy influence over headline issues of the day is the wrong standard for Congress to measure its effectiveness in foreign policy. Instead, a new standard of “empowered engagement” that focuses on legislative diplomacy, structural foreign policy and empowering individual policy entrepreneurs should be considered.

Institutional factors beyond individual members’ ability to control are behind much of Congress’s declining foreign policy influence on headline issues: information disparities, polarization and the need for rapid response among them. To effectively reclaim its foreign policy powers, it is critical for Congress to work within rather than attempt to overcome these broader trends.

To set itself up for “empowered engagement,” Congress should bolster institutions of legislative diplomacy, focus on institutional reform in executive branch agencies and insert congressional voices into executive branch deliberations.

Press Release

How Congress Can Address Empowered Engagement in Foreign Policy in 2021


Over the last century, Congress has been consigned to a bit-player role in the politics of foreign policy, outmatched by the “imperial presidency.” From the creation of a professionalized Foreign Service in 1924 to the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934, and from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), Congress has—with some variation—gradually ceded foreign policy power to the presidency, washing its hands of the risky business of global leadership. Attempts to claw back high-profile powers of war and peace—like the War Powers Resolution—have mostly failed to restore the clear primacy Congress held for most of the 19th century. The rise of a large and professional national-security bureaucracy, information classification and three decades of abdicating oversight of new intelligence agencies further mark executive victories over congressional foreign policy capacity.

Yet, while few would argue congressional primacy is feasible or wise in the modern international environment, the “sole organ” doctrine of exclusive, presidential power in foreign affairs is not a historical truism. Instead, the degree of congressional control over foreign affairs is a function of the times—the nature of the international environment, the speed required for policy response (especially in times of crisis) and internal coherence in the legislative branch, among other factors.

Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Congress has demonstrated an increasing desire—institutionally and on the part of individual members—to engage in foreign policy, even in conflict with the presidency. As early as February 2017, there was a reported uptick in “diplomatic damage control” as leading members of Congress met with heads of government and foreign ministers from traditional U.S. allies like Australia and Canada amid Trump’s bellicose rhetoric. Also in 2017, both Houses passed sanctions on Russia—with vetoproof supermajorities—for its interference in the 2016 presidential elections, over President Trump’s explicit opposition.

More recently, both houses passed a resolution introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), which invoked the War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen. Similarly, the House passed the NATO Support Act with a large bipartisan majority (357-22), which would bar the executive branch from withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This act built on non-binding resolutions of support for the alliance passed by both houses in 2017. Other efforts that did not make it out of both chambers include a House-passed resolution to limit military strikes on Iran, and the proposed Libya Stabilization Act, which would sanction leaders from Turkey and Russia over the Libyan civil war.

Yet, in many of these cases—especially those which seek legislative change of specific, substantive foreign policy matters—Congress’s efforts have met with little success. The Yemen resolution, for example, did not survive a presidential veto, and the Senate never took up the House’s NATO Support Act. The administration has continued to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, using emergency authorization to go around Congress, which was likely to be more reserved in the wake of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. On many foreign policy fronts, proposals, single-chamber passages and resolutions-to-nowhere have remained the norm. Even after an impeachment saga sparked by Trump’s maneuvers in foreign affairs, many political scientists argue “the imperial presidency [remains] alive and well.”

A recent analysis argued that it was “precisely Congress’s growing frustration with Trump’s foreign policy that appears to be motivating” recent assertions of authority. Similarly, “the Senate’s GOP majority” has generally been “more likely to agree with House Democrats on foreign policy than with the Trump administration.” Yet, Congress has often failed to claw back the authority it seeks, which speaks to the structural difficulties of congressional foreign policy.

However, even as bipartisan leaders in Congress sought more influence on foreign policy, they have also defended the institutions and bureaucracies within the executive branch that contribute to its primacy in foreign affairs. For example, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations (SACFO) rejected the administration’s repeated proposals to cut the International Affairs Budget, which funds civilian foreign policy agencies. The SACFO argued these proposals were born of a “doctrine of retreat” that would only serve “to weaken America’s standing in the world.”

The 117th Congress—even if divided—is likely to continue these trends: should President Trump be reelected, a Democratic chamber would continue to seek to constrain his “America first” international order; and under a Biden administration, members of both parties may seek to be active partners in the enormous task of rebuilding America’s alliances, international standing and foreign policy agencies. The latter “make-or-break test for” American foreign policy would require all hands on deck, including those of Congress.

Yet, in this high-stakes window for reform, Congress should strengthen its engagement on foreign policy in ways most likely to succeed. For example, a contentious reclamation of headline influence would run headlong into structural factors advantaging executive-driven foreign policy, and thus be more likely to fail. Instead, this report synthesizes scholarship on congressional diplomacy and interbranch foreign policy relations and suggests reforms that are more likely to successfully and productively augment Congress’s capacity for “empowered engagement” in foreign affairs.

Featured Publications