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Choosing to Lead: Understanding Congressional Foreign Policy Entrepreneurs

Choosing to Lead: Understanding Congressional Foreign Policy Entrepreneurs

by Ralph G. Carter

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Shedding new light on how U.S. foreign policy is made, Ralph G. Carter and James M. Scott focus on “congressional foreign policy entrepreneurs,” the often unrecognized representatives and senators who take action on foreign policy matters rather than waiting for the executive branch to do so. These proactive members of Congress have undertaken many


Shedding new light on how U.S. foreign policy is made, Ralph G. Carter and James M. Scott focus on “congressional foreign policy entrepreneurs,” the often unrecognized representatives and senators who take action on foreign policy matters rather than waiting for the executive branch to do so. These proactive members of Congress have undertaken many initiatives, including reaching out to Franco’s Spain, promoting détente with the Soviet Union, proposing the return of the Panama Canal, seeking to ban military aid to Pinochet’s regime in Chile, pushing for military intervention in Haiti, and championing the recognition of Vietnam. In Choosing to Lead, Carter and Scott examine the characteristics, activities, and impact of foreign policy entrepreneurs since the end of the Second World War. In so doing, they show not only that individual members of Congress have long influenced the U.S. foreign policy-making process, but also that the number of foreign policy entrepreneurs has grown over time.

Carter and Scott combine extensive quantitative analysis, interviews with members of Congress and their staff, and case studies of key foreign policy entrepreneurs, including Frank Church, William Fulbright, Jesse Helms, Edward Kennedy, Pat McCarran, and Curt Weldon. Drawing on their empirical data, the authors identify the key variables in foreign policy entrepreneurship, including membership in the Senate or House, seniority and committee assignments, majority or minority party status, choice of foreign policy issues, and the means used to influence policy. By illuminating the roles and impact of individual members of Congress, Carter and Scott contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the broader U.S. foreign policy-making process.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“I now see the foreign policy-making process in a different light than I did before reading Choosing to Lead. Ralph G. Carter and James M. Scott show that Congress can and regularly does play an important role in foreign policy making. In the future, foreign-policy analysts will have to consider that role rather than assume that only the Oval Office matters.”—A. Cooper Drury, author of Economic Sanctions and Presidential Decisions: Models of Political Rationality

“Two scholars reveal here the fascinating stories of enterprising American lawmakers who’ve exerted extraordinary personal influence in the making of American foreign policy. Sometimes unnoted in contemporary writings and occasionally unappreciated, some were surprisingly successful and some stunningly selfless. Choosing to Lead is historically significant and interestingly written.”—Jim Wright, Former Speaker, U. S. House of Representatives

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Understanding Congressional Foreign Policy Entrepreneurs
By Ralph G. Carter James M. Scott

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4503-9

Chapter One



President George H. W. Bush once claimed: "I have an obligation as president to conduct the foreign policy of this country the way I see fit" (Devroy 1989, A, 27). The president's claim reflects a common perspective widely adopted in popular accounts as well as academic models and conceptual images of foreign policy. Yet this characterization of foreign policy is fatally impaired, as it fails to account for consequential policy makers in Congress who play important roles and have significant impacts on American foreign policy. The lens suggested by the former president is simply not wide enough.

Foreign policy "can be said to be the sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations" (Hill 1993, 312). For a country like the United States, a wide range of choices typically exists to confront any given issue. Understanding the choices requires attention to the actors, preferences, and processes of policy making. As Peter Trubowitz (1998, 241) argues, "it is the realities of power inside a country, not the distribution of power in the international system, that determines the course of the nation's foreign policy." Along with the actions themselves, the origins of and motivations for the actions are important. Thus, in this book foreign policy is defined as the goals that the federal government's officials "seek to attain abroad, the values that give rise to those objectives, and the means or instruments used to pursue them" (Wittkopf, Kegley, and Scott 2003, 14).

So, from where do the goals of United States foreign policy come, and who selects the instruments for their pursuit? Which policy makers would a wider lens include to better understand foreign policy? These questions defy easy answers. On one hand, most observers stress the role of the president as the preeminent actor in foreign policy making, and most studies of the subject focus on the president and other White House participants in the process (Rudalevige 2005). Bert Rockman (1994, 59) summarizes this view well when he writes that "because of constitutional interpretations of presidential prerogatives in foreign policy and the president's unique ability to act, leadership in foreign policy is normally thought to be the particular responsibility of the president." Put more simply, "the captain of the ship of state is the president" (Crabb and Holt 1992, 297, emphasis in original).

Although an equal branch of government, Congress is less often mentioned as an important actor in the foreign policymaking process. Although there are exceptions (e.g. Blechman 1990; Hersman 2000; Howell and Pevehouse 2007; Lindsay 1994a; Martin 2000; Ripley and Lindsay 1993), relatively few studies attribute any systematic or significant influence by Congress in foreign policy. Moreover, in the eyes of many observers Congress seems neither prepared nor willing to challenge presidential preferences in foreign policy making (Hinckley 1994). Instead, "Congressional acquiescence in foreign affairs ... is the product of a powerful set of internal norms and attitudes, customs and institutions, a veritable culture of deference" (Weissman 1995, 3).

Yet inside the Washington Beltway, a different perspective is found. According to Lee Hamilton (R-Ind.), longtime member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, more recently a leader of the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, and currently the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, "although the president is the chief foreign policy maker, Congress has a responsibility to be both an informed critic and a constructive partner of the president" (Hamilton 2002, 7). Some observers go much further and claim that "it is impossible to understand fully the foreign policymaking in the United States without accounting for Congress" (Ripley and Lindsay 1993, 6). Most presidents would ruefully agree. Virtually every president since World War II has at some point castigated Congress for intruding into the "presidential" realm of foreign policy making. President Ronald Reagan illustrated the typical Oval Office frustration when he pounded his desk and told Republican congressional leaders, "We've got to get to where we can run foreign policy without a committee of 535 telling us what we can do" (Hoffman and Shapiro 1985, A, 22).

In foreign policy making the president cannot be both preeminent and hamstrung; Congress cannot be both acquiescent and an important actor that must be taken seriously. Thus a puzzle is posed: Which view is correct-the preeminent presidency or the assertive Congress?

A careful examination of all the facts suggests that the balance favors the latter choice-the assertive Congress. Even the most diehard defenders of the preeminent presidency admit that Congress occasionally plays important roles (Weissman 1995). Well-known instances of congressional assertiveness in foreign policy making include:

-ending United States participation in the Vietnam War, passing the War Powers Resolution, and investigating and publicizing covert operations and intelligence community activities in the 1970s;

-prohibiting funding for the Nicaraguan contras, promoting a greater emphasis on human rights in Central America, promoting and encouraging the Central American Peace Plan, legislating a nuclear freeze, and imposing economic sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s;

-codifying the economic embargo on Cuba, funding the dismantling of Soviet nuclear weapons (thereby keeping Soviet nuclear scientists and engineers gainfully employed), and voting down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the 1990s.

Part of the analytical problem is that "Congress is not truly an 'it' but a 'they,' and the hundreds of members who constitute that plural have their own political needs and substantive agendas" (Rudalevige 2005, 428). As one recent study of Congress characterized it, "Congress does not check presidential power, individuals within it do" (Howell and Pevehouse 2007, 34). So if one studies individual legislators instead of Congress as a singular entity, additional instances of significant foreign policy impact can be found (Mayhew 2005; Mayhew 2000), policy effects that are not always publicly attributed to the members of Congress (MCS) who initiate them. The following examples of congressional foreign policy impact, to be detailed in this book, are rarely appreciated by most observers:

Lesser-Known Examples of Congressional Foreign Policy Impact

From the 1940s

-Framing the debate for the creation of the United Nations and the European Union

From the 1950s

-Originating the ideas for what became the Peace Corps and NASA -Providing aid to Franco's Spain, thereby helping to end Spain's alienation from the West

From the 1960s

-Framing the debate for détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with the People's Republic of China

-Creating rules for high-technology trade with communist states that led to the creation of COCOM

-Raising the issue of the return of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians

-Reforming the procedures of the United Nations

-Calling for an end to the economic embargo against Cuba

-Outlawing political contributions by foreign agents

From the 1970s

-Improving relations with Mexico

-Pressuring American citizens to stop funding the Irish Republican Army

-Banning military assistance to the Pinochet regime in Chile

-Aiding the Afghan mujaheddin

-Providing relief for refugees

-Funding the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft

From the 1980s

-Focusing United States foreign policy more squarely on the issue of human rights, particularly as it applied to both communist regimes and rightwing military regimes

-Publicizing Soviet violations of the ABM Treaty

From the 1990s

-Proposing the creation of an International Criminal Court

-Ending the intervention in Somalia by cutting off the funding

-Pressuring the administration to intervene in Haiti

-Originating the idea for the successful bailout of Mexico's peso

-Pressuring the Swiss to return looted Jewish art -Promoting the idea of HIV and AIDS programs funded by the World Bank

-Promoting debt relief for the poorest countries in the world -Pushing for the democratization of Chile

-Highlighting Russian-Iranian exchanges in missile technology

-Creating Radio Free Asia after the massacre in Tiananmen Square

-Promoting improved ties with Russia

-Pressuring the administration to intervene to protect Bosnian Muslims

-Promoting democracy in Zimbabwe

-Pressuring the administration to recognize Vietnam

-Exempting humanitarian sales (food and medical supplies) from unilateral American embargoes

-Abolishing the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the United States Information Agency (USIA)

-Proposing sanctions on Iran for its pursuit of missile technology

-Framing the debate in support of enlarging NATO

-Reforming the IMF

-Withholding dues from the United Nations in return for reform of its operations and a reduction in United States dues

-Repudiating the International Criminal Court and passing the American Service Members Protection Act

-Contributing to the diplomatic formula to end NATO's bombing campaign against the Milosevic regime in retaliation for its "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovars

-Promoting withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the creation of a national missile defense system

-Extending the "war on drugs" by promoting United States military intervention in Colombia

-Pushing for the abolition of abortion activities abroad funded with aid from the United States

From the 2000s

-Banning the trade in "conflict diamonds"

-Creating a Russian-American exchange program

-Pressing the administration for a greater commitment toward reconstruction in both Afghanistan and Iraq

The list includes "high politics" illustrations like aiding the creation of the United Nations and the European Union, reaching out to Franco's Spain, promoting détente with the Soviet Union, proposing the return of the Panama Canal, banning military aid to the Pinochet regime in Chile, providing military aid to the Afghan mujaheddin, ending the intervention in Somalia, pushing for a military intervention in Haiti, promoting the recognition of Vietnam, framing the debate for enlarging NATO, forcing reform in the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, promoting a diplomatic solution to end the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, extending the "war on drugs" to include military intervention in Colombia, and promoting the creation of a national missile defense system.

So-called low politics examples are found as well: originating the ideas for the Peace Corps and NASA, regulating high-technology trade with communist states, pushing the ratification of the Genocide Convention, promoting the economic embargo against Cuba and subsequently codifying it into law, exempting humanitarian supplies from unilateral United States embargoes, advancing the peace process in Northern Ireland by hindering the ability of the Irish Republican Army to raise money from Americans, promoting a human rights focus in United States foreign policy, finding a way to bail out the Mexican peso, opposing the creation of the International Criminal Court, promoting HIV and AIDS programs and debt relief for the world's poorest countries, abolishing the ACDA and the USIA, and banning the trade in conflict diamonds.

When one adds congressional oversight activities and Congress's penchant for cutting budget requests (e.g. Carter 1998; Lindsay 1994b; Blechman 1990; Fenno 1966), it is hard to either dismiss the congressional foreign policy role or to characterize Congress as acquiescent. But more is involved here than one set of observers perceiving the congressional glass as half empty and another set perceiving it as half full. The congressional role in foreign policy making is misunderstood by many for a simpler reason-what scholars choose to examine determines what they think they know. When attention is focused on the proper evidence, patterns of engagement, avenues of influence, historical and policy context, and policy activity, the importance of Congress and its individual members in shaping United States foreign policy becomes clearer.

Congressional Decisions

A first corrective step is to change the decisions and activities that scholars choose to examine. For many the most straightforward way to study Congress is through roll-call vote analysis (Burden 2007). This approach has an obvious appeal. Roll-call votes provide scorecards that can tell who won on the foreign policy issue and by what margin. Furthermore, such votes yield interval-level data capable of significant quantitative analysis, thus grist for the mills of eager scholars. There is nothing wrong with relying on roll-call vote analysis to study Congress, so long as one recognizes there are "differences in the composition of the roll-call record across chambers and over time" (Roberts 2007, 355). Roll-call votes are also a reactive form of behavior, and thus they say little about the more proactive behavior of MCS (Burden 2007; Van Doren 1990). However, conclusions go seriously astray if scholars assume that roll-call votes are the only mechanism by which important foreign policy-making inputs are made by MCS. As Rebecca Hersman (2000, 19) notes, "observers must not only observe caution when weighing the significance of recorded votes, they must also give sufficient weight to the many ways that MCS and their staffs influence policy that can not easily be measured or recorded." Howell and Pevehouse (2007) concur, and their examination of congressional influence on decisions to use force-typically regarded as the preserve of the president-indicates that Congress and its members matter more and in a broader variety of ways than conventional studies suggest. In his study of congressional foreign policy assertiveness during the Cold War, the historian Johnson (2006) makes a similar point-that missing what is not easily measured leads to underestimating congressional foreign policy influence. At the very least, roll-call vote analyses ignore what happens before the vote as if such matters are inconsequential, but they are not (Burden 2007).

Barbara Hinckley's Less Than Meets the Eye (1994) illustrates this tendency. Chiefly examining formal legislation and official votes, she "finds little evidence for an increase in congressional activity across the years" (Hinckley 1994, 171). According to Hinckley, most foreign policy is the product of bureaucratic inertia, moving policy forward in directions set long ago and over which neither presidents nor Congress has much control. She also argues that post-Vietnam congressional reforms, which increased the impact of individual members, diminished the institutional influence of Congress by diffusing power and making it even more difficult for it to act coherently as an institution.

Hinckley's study, and others like it, suffer from the limits imposed by the evidence chosen for examination. For example, Hinckley focuses on what she calls the "congressional working agenda" (Hinckley 1994, 25), thus ignoring activities such as committee hearings or reports which pressure an administration to change its policy requests, the lobbying of administration officials by individual MCS, the actions of chamber leaders to frame public opinion or shape the overall governmental agenda, the degree to which administrations change their positions in anticipation of congressional opposition, and so on. These activities often have demonstrable policy consequences (e.g. Burden 2007; Johnson 2006; Mayhew 2005; Hersman 2000; Howell and Pevehouse 2007; Lindsay 1994a). Further, this "congressional working agenda" even omits many recorded votes such as "appropriations bills making no substantive changes in foreign policy, defense procurement decisions that do not directly impact on foreign nations or organizations (a B-1 bomber or Trident submarine), immigration policy and treatment of foreign nationals within the United States" (Hinckley 1994, 25).


Excerpted from CHOOSING TO LEAD by Ralph G. Carter James M. Scott Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ralph G. Carter is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Texas Christian University. He is a co-author of Making American Foreign Policy and the editor of Contemporary Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy: From Terrorism to Trade.

James M. Scott is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of Deciding to Intervene: The Reagan Doctrine and American Foreign Policy, also published by Duke University Press; co-author of The Politics of United States Foreign Policy and American Foreign Policy: Pattern and Process; and editor of After the End: Making U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post–Cold War World, also published by Duke University Press.

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