Photo Credit: WhiteHouse.Gov
U.S. Capitol.

White House and Department of State officials contend that – irrespective of Congress – President Obama can apply effective diplomatic, commercial and national security pressure, coercing Israel to repartition Jerusalem, and retreat from the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria to the 9-15 mile wide pre-1967 sliver, surrounded by the violently turbulent and unpredictable Arab Street.

That inaccurate underestimation of the power of Congress – which has traditionally opposed pressure on Israel, echoing the sentiments of most constituents – was recently expressed by US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro: “what is unmistakable about our foreign policy system is that the Constitution provides the president with the largest share of power….”

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The assertion that US foreign policy and national security are shaped by presidential omnipotence is refuted by recent precedents and the US Constitution. The latter 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 congressional policy among 535 legislators constitutes a severe disadvantage for the legislature.

According to the Congressional Quarterly, the US Constitution rectified the mistakes of its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, upgrading the role of Congress to the primary branch of the US 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 US 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, Iran Gate 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.” Thus, legislators prefer to be preoccupied with domestic issues, which are the primary concerns of their constituents and, therefore, decide their re-electability. Therefore, 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, bi-partisan 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, but Congress disposes.”

For example:

*On August 1, 2014, Democratic senators forced President Obama to de-link the $225mn funding of Iron Dome batteries from the highly controversial $2.7bn immigration and border security bill.

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Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger is consultant to Israel’s Cabinet members and Israeli legislators, and lecturer in the U.S., Canada and Israel on Israel’s unique contributions to American interests, the foundations of U.S.-Israel relations, the Iranian threat, and Jewish-Arab issues.