Congress Had Plenty of Say in Reagan Foreign Policy

by Andrew C. McCarthy

I’ve got no quarrel with Charles Krauthammer’s argument that then-backbencher Newt Gingrich is dramatically overstating his role in President Reagan’s foreign policy — just as I think (along with John Hood and Steve Hayward) that Newt detractors are dramatically overstating Gingrich’s negative criticisms of Reagan. But it is strange — particularly in light of Reagan administration history — to hear Dr. K conclusorily claim that “foreign policy is presidential. The Congress has almost no say. If it has any, it’s the Senate. It’s not the House.”

It is true that the Supreme Court has described presidential power over foreign affairs as “plenary.” But that principle has been effaced significantly over time. (I am not saying this is a good thing; it is simply a fact.) A textbook example of that erosion is Iran-Contra, the scandal that plagued the late Reagan years. Its principal cause was the Boland amendment — named for the member of the House (Massachusetts Democrat Edward Boland) who proposed the legislation that made it illegal to provide U.S. government funds to the Nicaraguan rebels (the Contras) who were trying to overthrow Daniel Ortega’s Marxist government.

Charles does correctly say that when the House impacts foreign policy, it is due to the majority party — the minority in the House has much less power than in the Senate. But he suggests this is an extraordinarily rare occurrence. I would respectfully counter that Congress, including the House, is much more of a player than he allows. How surprised would we be if, 20 or 30 years from now, some presidential candidate is bragging about how — after being swept into Congress in the 2010 shellacking — he or she helped stop President Obama from closing Gitmo or forced Obama’s hand in getting tough with Iran? And whoever that Congress critter is might actually be right! 

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