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Sometimes Our Job Is To Say No
The head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explains why it has always frustrated Presidents—and why it doesn’t have to
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
As a twenty-two-year-old senior at Princeton University, Wilson wrote an essay called “Congressional Government,” in which he took the Founding Fathers to task for their lack of wisdom in establishing a constitutional separation of powers and heaped scorn on the Senate’s power over treaties and appointments. Wilson advocated instead the adoption of a cabinet system based on the British parliamentary model—in effect, a legislative rubber stamp.
The young Mr. Wilson then sent his effort around to see if he could publish it and make a name for himself. Eventually it caught the eye of a twenty-nine-year-old Harvard lecturer, who thought it was well argued. He published it in a journal he edited, International Review , and that started off Woodrow Wilson’s career. The tutor was none other than Henry Cabot Lodge. And some years later, when Wilson was President, and Lodge was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chairman Lodge gave President Wilson a lesson in “congressional government.”
President Wilson probably could have achieved ratification of the League of Nations if he had not approached the Senate with such disdain. Chairman Lodge proposed fourteen conditions, few of which would raise an eyebrow today: language to ensure that the United States be the judge of its own internal affairs; that the United States retain the right to withdraw from the League; that the League not restrict any individual rights of U.S. citizens; that the United States assume no obligation to deploy forces through the League without the approval of Congress; that Congress approve all U.S. officials appointed to the League; and that Congress control all appropriations of U.S. funds for the League. Not controversial stuff.
But President Wilson refused even to consider such reservations, howling: “Never, never! I’ll never consent to adopt any policy with which that impossible man is so prominently identified.” Wilson lost the final vote 38 to 53.
The lesson is this: Presidents rarely win when they refuse to work with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. By contrast, when they have dealt with the committee in partnership, rather than confrontation, they have seen many successes.
Compare the fight over the League of Nations with the Senate’s recent consideration of NATO expansion. The growth of the Atlantic Alliance is perhaps the most important foreign policy matter to come before the Senate since the end of the Cold War. Yet, while the debate was spirited, it was not confrontational. Why?
Early in the process the Foreign Relations Committee raised a number of reservations about the administration’s approach to NATO expansion. For example, Dr. Henry Kissinger came and testified before the committee about his concern that by giving Russia a voice in NATO decision making, we were letting the fox into the henhouse. And so the committee drafted conditions in the Resolution of Ratification that built a “fire wall” in the NATO-Russia relationship. Also, over the next nine months, I and fellow committee members worked with the Secretary of State to address a number of other concerns. The result: The Senate overwhelmingly approved NATO expansion. Had the administration dug in its heels and expected the committee to rubber-stamp the expansion protocols, I can assure you the Senate would still be deliberating the wisdom of NATO expansion today.
So I disagree with President Wilson; I believe the Founding Fathers showed great wisdom when they established the separation of powers. Because in so doing, they ensured a voice for the American people in their nation’s foreign policy—a check on those foreign policy elites who would prefer to run foreign affairs unencumbered by the popular will.
In short, the Founders understood what President Wilson did not: that there is wisdom in the American heartland. They trusted that wisdom. And senators who serve on the Foreign Relations Committee must never forget what a privilege the American people have granted us by allowing us to be their voice in the great debates over the security of our nation.