Don’t Underestimate Congress!, January 13, 2012

The November, 2012 election to all 435 House seats and 33 Senate seats will determine the capability of the elected, or reelected, President to operate in a system which features the strongest legislature in the world, equal in power to the President, the most authentic representative of the American constituent and a systematic supporter of the Jewish State.

At this stage, the House Republican majority of 242:192 (one vacancy) seems to be secure.  However, the Senate Democratic majority of 53:47 is increasingly vulnerable with the retirement of 6 Democrats, compared with 2 Republicans; the 23 Democratic contested Senate seats, compared with only 10 Republican seats; and the high vulnerability of 8 Democratic, compared with 2 Republican, Senate seats.  In fact, the retirement of Centrist “Blue Dog” Democrats, in both chambers, could reflect their own polling, thus spelling a potential trouble for President Obama’s reelection.

The November 2012 election will determine the House and Senate majorities in Congress, which is co-equal to the White House in shaping domestic, foreign and national security affairs.  It was Congress which terminated the US military involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (the “Eagleton Amendment”), Angola (the “Clark Amendment”) and Nicaragua (the “Boland Amendment”); forced the USSR/Russia to open its gates to emigration (the “Jackson-Vanick Amendment”); cut foreign aid to Turkey and Chile; restructured the US intelligence community; caused the cancellation of the AWACs sale to Iran and trimmed the sale of Hawk and Sidewinder missiles to Jordan and Saudi Arabia; played a lead role in toppling the White Regime in South Africa; authorized the 1991 and the 2003 wars against Iraq; determined the date of the Somalia evacuation; refrained from ratifying the 1999 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; extended emergency assistance to Israel in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, in defiance of President Bush and Secretary of State Baker; etc.

US legislators prefer to yield the international arena to the President, and be preoccupied with district, state and national issues, which are critical to their constituents and to their reelection.  However, Congress reveals its powerful co-determining muscle in the international arena whenever urged by constituents and when Presidents abuse the Executive power, mislead Congress or follow policies which are opposed by most legislators.

The Congressional clout has grown dramatically since the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran Gate and globalization.  These milestones have enhanced the involvement of most legislators in international issues, have upgraded the oversight capabilities of Congress, have dramatically elevated the quality and quantity of Capitol Hill staffers, and have restrained the presidency. 

Congress derives much of its power from the decentralized federal system, the centrality of the constituent, the effective separation of (equal) powers, the total independence of the Legislature, and the elaborate system of checks and balances, which are designed to prevent the tyranny of the Executive and maintain a limited government.  Congress – which possesses the “power of the purse,” the jurisdiction of oversight, advice and consent and the “congressional veto” - has the authority to change, suspend, reverse, direct and initiate policies, prevent senior presidential appointments, reject treaties and add and eliminate government departments and agencies. 

In contrast to prime ministers and presidents in the parliamentary systems, US presidents are not omnipotent Executives, but one of three equal branches of government.  US presidents are very powerful and -unlike the diversified views of the Legislature - they is are a one man Executive.  But, the Presidents are not super-legislators, do not determine the legislative agenda, do not crown congressional leaders and committee chairmen and do not set the list of congressional candidates. US Presidents execute policies which are legislated by Congress, whose loyalty to the constituent, the constitution and the legislative process supersedes loyalty to the President and to the political party.

While the President is the Commander-in-Chief, article 1 of the US constitution (reinforced by the 1973 War Powers Act) stipulates that Congress shall have the power to declare War.  Congress has the power to initiate, authorize and terminate, while the President executes. 

In 1992, I was told by then Majority Leader, George Mitchell: “Didn’t you brief our distinguished Israeli guest that the US is not a monarchy and that Congress is co-equal to the Administration?!”  Hopefully, future Israeli leaders will realize that next to a powerful US President, there is an equally-powerful Congress - the most genuine representative of the American People and a bastion of support for enhanced US-Israel cooperation.