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Sometimes Our Job Is To Say No

June 2024
5min read

The head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explains why it has always frustrated Presidents—and why it doesn’t have to

I have occasionally been referred to as “Senator No,” and I’m proud of the title. But when it comes to saying no, I’m not even in the same ballpark with the first North Carolinian to serve as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nathaniel Ma¡on. A Revolutionary War veteran and native of Warrenton, Senator Macon was chairman between 1825 and 1829. He was a fierce opponent of any and all measures to expand the power of the new federal government.


I have occasionally been referred to as “Senator No,” and I’m proud of the title. But when it comes to saying no, I’m not even in the same ballpark with the first North Carolinian to serve as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nathaniel Ma¡on. A Revolutionary War veteran and native of Warrenton, Senator Macon was chairman between 1825 and 1829. He was a fierce opponent of any and all measures to expand the power of the new federal government. Indeed, during his entire thirty-seven-year tenure in Congress, Macon cast more no votes than did any ten other members combined.

He believed what I do: Saying no is a part of the job of being the Foreign Relations Committee chairman. As much as some might wish it otherwise, the committee was never meant to be a rubber stamp for administration policies.

Of course, this fact does not please everyone. Take the following passage from the journal Foreign Affairs : “[The senator] exercises the power of protest and veto. . . . It would not occur to [him] that he must sacrifice any of his liberty of action because he had become Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. He has always spoken his mind on all subjects, and he continues to speak it. If he does not like French policy . . . or British policy . . . he says so loudly and publicly. He feels perfectly free to indulge in running comment on the acts of foreign powers . . . and on any and all negotiations however delicate at any time while they are in progress. . . . The ensuing troubles of the Executive do not break his heart. . . . As a matter of fact, he regards it as his high duty to watch the Executive with the utmost suspicion. . . . He is . . . determined . . . to make the Senate a major partner in diplomatic affairs.”

That essay was not written about the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (though I would plead nolo contendere if it had been). It was written in January 1926 by Walter Lippmann about Sen. William Borah of Idaho, who succeeded Henry Cabot Lodge as chairman in 1924. (While I don’t subscribe to all of Senator Borah’s views, I sure do like his style.)

Chairman Borah was not alone in provoking the ire of the foreign policy elites. Consider this missive launched against his predecessor, Chairman Lodge, by the New York Times editorial page on July 19, 1919: “The light of truth and knowledge will penetrate the shadows of the crypt in which the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate holds its sessions only over the prostrate form of Henry Cabot Lodge, Chairman of that Committee. The legions of light, multitudinous, bold, powerful, have by their approach startled the hosts of night in their encampment within that chamber. They storm the entrance, but there stands Lodge . . . unconquerable and opaque at the door of the Committee room . . .”

Clearly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began rankling the folks up at The New York Times and the Council on Foreign Relations long before I took the helm.

The Times editorialist who wrote that passage was frustrated with Chairman Lodge because of his opposition to the League of Nations. This is not surprising; the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has always been a source of frustration for Utopian idealists in a rush to remake the world. And this, I believe, is exactly what our Founding Fathers intended. The Senate is slow to action by design, a brake on impulsive instincts. And the Foreign Relations Committee was, I believe, intended to be the Senate’s brake on foreign policy.

President Wilson lost the League of Nations largely because he approached the Senate with such disdain.

The committee’s role is contemplative; it is our job to say to Presidents and Secretaries of State, when they come demanding quick action on “urgent” treaties and legislation, “Slow down, let’s think on this a little.” We hold hearings, we listen to witnesses with differing points of view. Then, sometimes, our job is to work with an administration to improve its proposals. And sometimes our job is to say no.

Needless to say, this has been frustrating to generations of American Presidents. Woodrow Wilson, for example, loathed the United States Senate. He was a man in a hurry, with grand visions of a new world order, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stood in his way. (Thank goodness.)

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.

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