The US president is not omnipotent

By Yoram Ettinger, ISRAEL HAYOM

yoram-ettinger-pictureWhite House and State Department officials contend that, irrespective of Congress, President Barack Obama can apply effective diplomatic, commercial and national security pressure and coerce Israel to partition Jerusalem and retreat from Judea and Samaria to the 9-15 mile-wide pre-1967 sliver, surrounded by the violently turbulent and unpredictable Arab street.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro recently voiced this inaccurate underestimation of the power of Congress — which has traditionally opposed pressure on Israel, echoing the sentiments of most constituents — saying, “What is unmistakable about our foreign policy system is that the Constitution provides the president with the largest share of power.”

The assertion that U.S. foreign policy and national security are shaped by presidential omnipotence can be refuted by the U.S. Constitution as well as recent precedents. The Constitution was created by the Founding Fathers, who were determined to limit the power of government and preclude the possibility of executive dictatorship. They were apprehensive of potential presidential excesses and encroachment, and therefore assigned the formulation of foreign policy and national security to both Congress and the president. Obviously, the coalescing of policy between 535 legislators constitutes a severe disadvantage for the legislature.

According to the Congressional Quarterly, the U.S. Constitution rectified the mistakes of its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, upgrading the role of Congress to the primary branch of the U.S. government. “Hence, the first article of the Constitution is dedicated to Congress. The powers, structure, and procedures of the national legislature are outlined in considerable detail in the Constitution, unlike those of the presidency and the judiciary.”

Unlike all other Western democracies — where the executive branch of government dominates the legislature, especially in the area of international relations and defense — the U.S. Constitution laid the foundation for the world’s most powerful legislature, and for an inherent power struggle over the making of foreign policy between the legislature and the executive, two independent, co-equal and co-determining branches of government. Moreover, while the president is the commander in chief, presidential clout depends largely on congressional authorization and appropriation in a system of separation of powers and checks and balances, especially in the areas of sanctions, foreign aid, military assistance, trade agreements, treaty ratification, appointment confirmation and all spending.

Congressional power has been dramatically bolstered since the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair and globalization, which have enhanced the involvement of most legislators in international issues, upgraded the oversight capabilities of Congress, dramatically elevated the quality and quantity of some 15,000(!) Capitol Hill staffers and have restrained the presidency.

However, Congress has often abdicated its constitutional power in the area of foreign policy, failing to fully leverage the power of the purse: funding, defunding and “fencing.” Legislators prefer to focus on domestic issues, which represent their constituents’ primary concerns and therefore determine their re-electability. Hence, they usually allow the president to take the lead in the initiation and implementation of foreign and national security policies, unless the president abuses their trust, outrageously usurping power, violating the law, assuming an overly imperial posture, pursuing strikingly failed policies, or dramatically departing from national consensus (e.g., the deeply rooted, bipartisan commitment to the Jewish state). Then, Congress reveals impressive muscle as befits a legislature, which is the most authentic reflection of the American people, unrestrained by design, deriving its power from the constituent and not from party leadership or the president, true to the notion that “the president proposes, Congress disposes.”

For example:

  • On August 1, 2014, Democratic senators forced Obama to separate the $225 million funding of Iron Dome batteries from the highly controversial $2.7 billion immigration and border security bill.
  • Since 1982 the Senate has repeatedly refused to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea, and since 1999 it has rejected ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
  • The January 2013 defense authorization bill tightened restrictions on the transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo to the U.S. In May 2009, Majority Leader Harry Reid foiled Obama’s attempt to close down the detention camp.
  • On February 17, 2011, Obama reluctantly vetoed a U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israel’s settlement policy, due to bipartisan congressional pressure.
  • In September 2012, a $450 million cash transfer to the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt was blocked by Congress.
  • The 2012 budget cut into Obama’s foreign aid spending request by more than $8 billion.
  • In 2009, bipartisan congressional opposition prevented the appointment of Charles Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council.
  • In 1990-1992, Congress approved a series of amendments, expanding U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation to unprecedented levels despite presidential opposition.
  • In 1990, President George H. W. Bush failed in his attempt to cut Israel’s foreign aid by 5 percent due to congressional opposition.
  • In January 1975, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was signed into law, in defiance of the president.
  • Congress ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam (the 1973 Eagleton, Cooper and Church Amendments), Angola (the 1976 Clark Amendment) and Nicaragua (the 1982-1984 Boland Amendments).
  • In 1991, Senator Daniel Inouye fended off administration pressure to withdraw an amendment to upgrade the port of Haifa facilities for the Sixth Fleet: “According to the U.S. Constitution, the legislature supervises the executive, not vice versa.”

Will the 114th Congress follow in his footsteps, or will it abdicate its constitutional responsibilities?

December 28, 2014 | 6 Comments »

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6 Comments / 6 Comments

  1. @ ArnoldHarris:

    The Republicans defeated themselves again by running maybe the only candidate carter could beat and then did beat but by a very narrow margin.

    Gerald Ford could hardly be looked as an improvement over Carter. I still remember all the Ford jokes….Seems to me Republicans want to lose.

  2. @ yamit82:
    About James Earl Carter;

    In early summer 1976, my wife and I had completed our studies toward our master’s degrees at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. My wife Stefi’s work was in anthropology, historical linguistics, and archaeology. Two of our close friends at that campus were a husband and wife team of field archaeologists. The husband was a native son of the state of Mississippi. We were together with them for a dinner at their campus apartment, and discussing the presidential campaign then shaping up, with Gerald Ford, Nixon’s appointed vice president and his successor as president after Nixon resigned, working in an effort to get elected to his own presidency. The subject of our talk began focusing on Carter. I think he already had been selected by the Democratic Party as their candidate in that election.

    Our Mississippian host warned us carefully and strongly against putting Carter in the White House, despite him being a fellow southerner. But he told us that as a southerner, he knew a lot more about the relatively unknown Georgia governor than I would as a northerner or my wife who had come here some years earlier from her eastern European homeland. The point he made was that this governor, Carter, would prove to be a weak, petty and tyrannical person who the American people would wish never to have been elected president. More than a little like Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice president from Tennessee, who went through this country’s first congressional impeachment. And so it came to pass. I never have forgotten that conversation and the warning from the lips of our friend from Mississippi.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI

  3. In 1987, on the eighth anniversary of the signing of the Camp David peace treaty, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were in Israel. Begin refused to receive them. Carter was being honored at a luncheon
    at the home of President Chaim Herzog, along with the Israelis who had been at Camp David. Everyone was there except for Begin.
    When Carter saw Kadishai, he asked once again to speak to his old partner in peace. “Okay, I’ll put you on the phone,” Kadishai said. He dialed the number and told Begin, “Mr. President Carter is here, he would like to speak to you.”
    “Please give him the phone,” Begin said.
    Carter said, “Hello, Mr.Begin.”
    “Hello, President Carter. How’s Rosalynn?”
    “She’s fine.”
    Then Begin abruptly said good-bye.

  4. I also wish that Israel would kick out U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro who is just another corrupt court Jew. The Saudis would always exercise a veto over any U.S. ambassador and Israel should have the same right.

  5. The two houses of the Congress of the United States are both controlled by the Republican Party, and about half these members are supported by and affiliated with the Tea Party movement, which has sworn hostility against Obama, Kerry, and most of the policies they stand for. Both these men have only 24 months and 22 days left before a new president is inaugurated in Washington DC.

    The newly strengthened power of the Republican-controlled and friendly-to-Israel Congress takes charge in just 22 days. So just hang tough and remember, all good things come to he who waits. Because the 2016 presidential election campaigm shall begin that very day, and Democrat contenders for public office at all levels are already acting as those Barack Hussein Obama had never even been born, to say nothing of having been elected to two presidential terms.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI