Read: Who controls foreign policy: The president or Congress?
Yet as the Supreme Court said pointedly just a few years back in rejecting the notion that the president is the “sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,” the Constitution recognizes no such “unbounded power.” On the contrary, the legislature’s power to influence and even control U.S. foreign policy decision making is vast, and certainly vast enough to support the uniform view the witnesses expressed: U.S. support for Ukraine is a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, and the president is undermining that policy, not legitimately setting a new one.
First principles first. The Constitution expressly allocates to Congress a lengthy list of foreign-affairs-related powers, not only to declare war, but also to regulate commerce with foreign nations, define and punish offenses against the law of nations, make rules for the government and regulation of the armed forces, appropriate funds to provide for the common defense, and indeed make “all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution” any of those powers, among others.
The list of foreign-affairs powers the Constitution allocates to the president is, in contrast, quite brief and—far more important, as the Supreme Court has long and repeatedly explained—dependent “upon their disjunction or conjunction with those of Congress.” While the scope of some of the president’s powers may be reasonably broad, the president is on the thinnest possible constitutional ice when he takes steps “incompatible with” views Congress has expressly or impliedly made known. As Justice Robert H. Jackson famously explained in the Steel Seizure case during the Korean War, our constitutional equilibrium is one that ensures the president is bound by the duly enacted laws of the United States.
Far from understanding these powers to be more constrained in the realm of foreign affairs or national security, the Constitution’s Framers recognized the power to appropriate money in particular as an especially important check on the executive’s ability to exercise U.S. military power. Determined to learn from the negative example of the British military—which had quartered soldiers in private homes and clashed repeatedly with colonists—the Framers thought it essential that control over the military not be vested in an executive alone. Thus, in addition to giving Congress the power to raise, support, and regulate armies, the Constitution expressly requires members of Congress to authorize military expenditures “in the face of their constituents” every two years, ensuring that the government’s most profound power remained squarely in the hands of “the representatives of the people.” Military leaders at the time favored this approach as well, as they feared being made the political scapegoat of civilian policy decisions. When it came to matters at the core of American national security, Congress was to play a central role.