- Historic Sites
The British Vew
The recent British ambassador to Washington takes a generous-spirited but clear-eyed look at the document that, as he points out, owes its existence to King George III
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
We recently experienced a textbook illustration of the working of the Constitution in real—all too real—life. And glorious and satisfying it was to see it in action. Gramm-Rudman. The most important annual item in any nation’s political life is the enactment of the budget, concerned as it is with getting value for money from the citizens’ taxes. Now the executive and legislature agreed that the budget deficit had to be reduced but could not agree on how to reduce it. So they tried to shuffle off the responsibility onto an automatic mechanism. Thereupon the Supreme Court, the third coequal branch of government, blew the whistle for foul play and said, in effect: “You guys, President and members of the Congress, were elected to take the tough decisions, not to shirk them. So get back in there and earn.” Splendid stuff. One hundred and ninety-nine years after signature, the Constitution was working in the way it was intended to in a matter that could not have been foreseen: as a check on the abuse of power, the abuse of power in this case being a refusal to accept the corollary of power —responsibility.
Admiration, certainly, but also despair. For the same checks on the abuse of power also act as brakes on the formulation and execution of policy. What, in fact, is the policy of the United States on a given issue? Very difficult to say. How can anyone work out in advance the ultimate resolution of the parallelogram of forces when so many opposing views contend? The State Department may have its own defense policy, the Pentagon its own foreign policy; but until the President has spoken, there is no policy. There is only static, as the baronies conduct their internecine warfare. And even when the President has spoken, that means only that there is an administration policy, which may or may not fly, as they say, in the Congress. That’s OK for Americans; after all, it’s your business how you choose to run your affairs. Your suffering is your own and self-inflicted.
Or it would be, if it had no effect on us, your friends. Or, indeed, on your adversaries. For America lives with us in the world. Because of your political clout, military strength, and economic pervasiveness, we need to know how you intend to exert your clout, strength, and pervasiveness so that we may react to them, support them, resist them. As a result, whole new industries—service industries—have grown up in Washington to meet the need for insight into the arcane mysteries of the American political system, guidance through its labyrinthine ways, and foresight into the likely outturn of events.
Round the White House and the Hill orbit the media, shedding light and casting shadows in equal measure. Round the White House and the Hill and the media orbit the embassies, the lobbyists, the access-mongers, seeking the truth with the persistence of Athenians consulting the oracle and being rewarded, more often that not, with Delphic answers.
For example, Britain and the United States decided that it was in the national interest of both countries to update their extradition treaty. The British Embassy negotiated with the State Department. Three months later the champagne corks popped and the treaty was signed. The treaty had to go to Parliament in London for ratification and the Senate in Washington for its advice and consent. No problem in London. The government had a majority in the House of Commons, and ratification went through “on the nod.” Not so in the Senate. First there were hearings in the Foreign Relations Committee; the world and its wife were invited to give their opinion and did so at some length. Months passed. The Foreign Relations Committee wrote a report and sent it to the full Senate. More months passed. Modifications to the treaty were sought and obtained. Finally, twelve months after signature, a debate on the floor of the Senate and an overwhelming majority for the treaty. All’s well that ends well. But three months to negotiate an agreement with one branch of government and twelve months to ratify it with its coequal branch! Salt II, signed in 1979, expired before it could be ratified.
The United States is unique in many ways. One of the ways in which it is unique is that it is the only country in the world with which foreigners, friends, and foes alike have to negotiate every treaty twice, once with the administration and a second time with the Senate. This is wonderful for the United States, terrible for the foreigners, for the foreigners have to make a double compromise with their own interests if they wish to get an agreement.
They get less than they want with the administration and then still less with the Congress. It enables the administration to play both ends against the middle. Either it gives in gracefully to the foreigners’ proposals and gains a reputation for sweet reasonableness, knowing perfectly well that the Senate will grab back all the concessions the administration has made, or it bargains as tough as old boot leather, explaining the while that it hurts them more than it hurts the foreign victim, but that it is being cruel only to be kind in order to ensure that the resulting agreement gets past the Senate without too much hassle.