Capitol Hill vs. One Pennsylvania Avenue: The Right to call the shots


In the United States, the state is composed of the three separate and independent branches of the government - Capitol Hill vs. One Pennsylvania Avenue: The Right to call the shots introduction. The Executive branch is delegated with the power of enforcement of the laws and the administration over the daily activities of the state; the legislative is empowered by the Constitution over the law making and ratification of foreign accords, as in the function of the United States Senate, and the Judiciary is mandated to interpret those statutes and accords to see if the meet the burden set by the fundamental law for its enforceability. But when two branches collide in their acts, who must give way? In the matter of foreign policy, who decides ultimately?

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Capitol Hill and the White House: Who gives way?

            In any political relationship, there will be instances when two branches of government do not see eye to eye. Collisions of the political nature have to be determined by the law, and not by the whim of a political leader, as is the case of some dictatorships. But eventually, one body has to accede to the rightful power display of the other and submit itself as the inferior in the case. In democracies, the eventuality that the legislative, those elected by the people of their states, and the President, elected by the populace, will have times where they will try to impose themselves on the other.

            The fight over foreign policy decisions has been a continual source of recrimination between the separate powers in a democracy (Arthur Schhsinger, 1972). Alexis de Tocqueville, in his comments on the conduct of foreign affairs policy making, avers that the qualifications in making foreign policy is not in the characteristics found in that political system, but in the deficiencies of each one (Alexis de Tocqueville). Most will argue that the setting of the moorings of the foreign policy of the state lies within the ambit of the Executive branch (Schhsinger, 1972). But if that statement were to be given full weight and consideration, then where does the qualification of checks and balances lie (Schhsinger, 1972)?

            In the context of the United States, the question, and hopefully the answer, will lie in the dispensation of the powers of each branch that has been allocated each by the Constitution (Schhsinger, 1972). Arguments say that the ineffectivity of the Legislative branch to assert itself in the international forum has given the Executive branch the ambit to exercise that power in the establishment of foreign policy decisions (United States Foreign Policy Encycopedia). In its early history, the United States encumbered the legislature to handle all foreign policy matters (United States). But the labyrinthine organization born out of the American War for Independence left little room of distinction between the powers of the President and the Congress (United States).

            From its inception to the present times, many have debated over the scope and breadth of the powers of the President to enact foreign policy decisions (Alexander De Conde, 2002). The Founding Fathers, basing their experience on their dealings with the English Crown, have evidenced their disdain for an overly powerful President (De Conde, 2002). Analysts say that the President, by virtue of his office, could assert the vast resources of that office to influence Congress (De Conde, 2002). Others argue that Congress virtually capitulated that power, in the wake of the rise of the United States as an imperial superpower (De Conde, 2002). Again, the French political theorist de Tocqueville observed that the figure of the President is garnished with immense, almost monarchical, power (De Conde, 2002).

            After the victory of the United States over Britain, the Founding Fathers perceived the deficiencies in the Articles to contain the powers of an influential Chief Executive (De Conde, 2002). In their crafting of the Constitution, the framers initiated moves that would curtail the powers of the President in making foreign policy decisions, especially in the decision to declare war, and rested that power in the hands of Congress (De Conde, 2002). But some are still fearful of the latitude and undefined scope of the President (De Conde, 2002). In his book, The Imperial Presidency (1973), Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. avers that the concentration of powers in the hands of the Presidency had morphed the office of the President into a sort of an elected monarch without any form of restraint in executing foreign policy decisions (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., 1973).

Can the President be stopped?

            In the case of United States v Curtis Wright Export Corporation et al., the effect of the case was one of a resounding affirmation of the power of the President to administer foreign affairs of the country (Schhsinger, 1972). The United States Congress saw fit to pass a resolution in 1934, giving authority to pass measures to halt the export of arms to two warring countries, Bolivia and Paraguay, which were locked in a war (Schhsinger, 1972). It left the issue to then President Roosevelt that, if in his judgement as Chief Executive, a halt of arms exports would help cease the conflict (Schhsinger, 1972).

            But in a reversal of Presidential power, then President Woodrow Wilson went to Congress to pacify British displeasure over the enactment of the 1911 Panama Tolls Act (Onecle, 2005). So does that mean that the Presidential exercise of his right to enact foreign policy decisions rest in, one, the pleasure of other nations, or, two, in the good graces that Congress will afford the incumbent Chief Executive? Again, it is inferred that the powers of the President in handling foreign policy matters did originate in the United States Constitution, as crafted by the Founding Fathers (De Conde, 2002). But that would just confirm the imperialistic impressions of the President. But in the original crafting of the law, the President was only allowed the power to command the military arm of the country, not to actually declare war (De Conde, 2002).

            Even in the appointment of foreign emissaries and other foreign service officials need the approval of the Senate (De Conde, 2002). And only through the concurrence of the  Senate, upon a two-thirds vote of all members, can the President have any foreign accords with other nations ratified (De Conde, 2002). In essence, the role of the President as commander in chief would only be limited in the direction of the military, not in the decision to send troops to war (De Conde, 2002). The power to declare war will still lie in the vestiges of Congress (De Conde, 2002).

            In fact, Congress is endowed with wide powers to handle the foreign policy direction of the United States (Onecle, 2005). In actuality, the power of Congress in the dispensation of foreign policy matters is to augment the powers of the President rather than a means to limit them (Onecle, 2005). But this power in making and adhering to the ambit of foreign policy is littered with the debris caused by the abuse of the Executive branch in making accords with organizations and countries (Gene Healy, 2000). One such example of the abuse is that of Presdient William Clinton (Healy, 2000).

            Clinton foisted on Congress the demand that the United States agree to the conditions of one treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, even if the majority in the Senate did not agree to sanction the accord (Healy, 2000). In other instances, Clinton disagreed with Congress on the adherence to the provisions to the Anti-Ballistic Treaty even if the co-signatory to the ban was already non-existent, in this case, the Soviet Union (Healy, 2000). And Clinton still wanted the Congress to abide by the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that he has not even submitted to the Senate for ratification (Healy, 2000).

            History is rife with Congressional reactions to the whimsical approach of Presidents who abuse their foreign policy prerogatives. In the wake of the military intervention of the United States in Vietnam, Congress approved the 1973 War Powers Act (American Court Cases Review, 2008). The law effectively sheared the power of the President to deploy troops to war areas without first gaining Congressional approval (American Court, 2008). This law also directs the President to report to Congress, seek its approval, then order the deployment (American Court, 2008). Congress may at any time order the troops recalled (American Court, 2008).

            Can the Congress implement measures to restrain the power of the President on matters of foreign policy? As shown in the paper, Congress may enact legislation that will limit, not stop, the President in his exercise over foreign affairs matters of the state. But also shown in the paper, that Congress cannot stop the abuse of that power once it has been abused; it can only react to the actions taken by the Chief Executive. What can be gleaned from the paper is that initiatives by Congress to re-acquire their powers thought as surrendered to the President have only come in periodic cycles, as to the exercise of the powers of the President remains incessant (Onecle, 2005).


American Court Cases Review. (2008). National security. Retrieved November 18, 2008,           from


De Conde, A. (2002). Presidential power. Retrieved November 18, 2008, from


Healy, G. (2000, December 13). Arrogance of power reborn: the imperial presidency and            foreign policy in the Clinton years. Cato Institute Policy Analysis  number 389.


Onecle. (2005). Congressional implementation of presidential policies. Retrieved November      18, 2008, from


Schlesinger, Jr., A.M. (1973). The Imperial Presidency.  New York: Mariner Books

Schhsinger, Jr, A. (1972, October). Congress and the making of American foreign policy.            Foreign Affairs.



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