Tuesday, October 31, 2006

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Congress gets body-slammed in Foreign Affairs

Neither Peter Beinart nor Matthew Yglesias will make libertarians feel all that sanguine about how a Democratic takeover would affect U.S. foreign economic policy. Beinart fears, correctly, that any Democrat taking their economicpolicymaking cues from Lou Dobbs is going to wind up having to embrace a full-throated economic nationalism that in the end won't do much but lower economic growth. Yglesias fears, correctly, that Democrats have not properly appreciated the way in which trade policy helps advance U.S. security interests.

So I'm not feeling good -- and then I stumble across Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann's "When Congress Checks Out" in Foreign Affairs:

One of Congress' key roles is oversight: making sure that the laws it writes are faithfully executed and vetting the military and diplomatic activities of the executive. Congressional oversight is meant to keep mistakes from happening or from spiraling out of control; it helps draw out lessons from catastrophes in order to prevent them, or others like them, from recurring. Good oversight cuts waste, punishes fraud or scandal, and keeps policymakers on their toes. The task is not easy. Examining a department or agency, its personnel, and its implementation policies is time-consuming. Investigating possible scandals can easily lapse into a partisan exercise that ignores broad policy issues for the sake of cheap publicity.

The two of us began our immersion in Congress 37 years ago, participating in events such as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's extended hearings on the Vietnam War. Throughout most of our time in Washington, tough oversight of the executive was common, whether or not different parties controlled the White House and Congress. It could be a messy and contentious process, and it often embarrassed the administration and its party. But it also helped prevent errors from turning into disasters and kept administrations more sensitive to the ramifications of their actions and inactions.

In the past six years, however, congressional oversight of the executive across a range of policies, but especially on foreign and national security policy, has virtually collapsed. The few exceptions, such as the tension-packed Senate hearings on the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib in 2004, only prove the rule. With little or no midcourse corrections in decision-making and implementation, policy has been largely adrift. Occasionally -- as during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last year -- the results have been disastrous.

That Ornstein and Mann wrote this in Foreign Affairs is telling for two reasons.

First, Ornstein and Mann are about as mainstream as you can get in the world of congressional analysis. We're not talking partisan hacks here. To quote Joe-Bob Briggs, "These guys are the feedlot." For Mann and Ornstein to co-author this kind of article at this point is telling.

Even more telling -- that it ran in Foreign Affairs. I say this because if there's one thread that runs through most foreign policymaker wannabes, it's a desire to have Congress butt out of foreign policy. No one who works in the executive branch on foreign policy ever wants to deal with Congress on anything -- because it's a colossal pain. The natural inclination of most foreign policymakers is to work for the executive branch. And yet, this argument gets the Foreign Affairs imprimatur.

I don't like seeing U.S. foreign economic policy shift in a more populist direction, and I look forward to bashing Pelosi and company if that happens. But if forced to choose, I'll trade that off for greater congressional oversight.

UPDATE: Bruce Bartlett offers his support for gridlock as well.

posted by Dan on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM


"Beinart fears, correctly, that any Democrat taking their economic policymaking cues from Lou Dobbs is going to wind up having to embrace a full-throated economic nationalism that in the end won't do much but lower economic growth."

I'm pretty sure that you'd have to beat the bushes for quite a while before you'd find any democrat willing to take their economic policy making cues from Lou Dobbs. Maybe Peter lives in bizarro world where Dobbs actually is a respected policymaker in the democratic party.

And let's just point out that under the careful hand of the right we've seen stunning deficits, run away spending, massive contract corruption, vast increases in government at all levels and a tax policy that even a five year old would laugh at.

Using the bogeyman of Lou Dobbs after the fiscal disasters of the past five years is rich. Talk about your straw man...

Hugo Chavez couldn't have wasted as much money as the Republicans have over the last five years.

posted by: Azael on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Professor Drezner - am trying to link to one of your entries re: Jan Pronk's blog for an article in the Ledger. How do you pull off a permalink with your blog platform?

Please email if you can help.

posted by: Andrew Bennett on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

I believe that the article is essentially correct in seeing a lack of Congressional oversight...and the reason for that shortfall is not hard to discern. The Democrats have never accepted the results of the 2000 election and have therefore converted every issue before Congress (even appointments of officers in the Executive Branch) into an us-vs-them confrontation. Responding in kind, the Republicans (with some notable exceptions) have decided that their political survival is dependent on protecting the Bush Administration from criticism. The result is that the Democrats are stymied in any effort to exercise oversight by a Republican majority that sees the Democrats using every potential issue as a lever for political advantage. The Republicans do not want to take the lead in assessing the work of a Republican administration where they see the Democrats waiting for any opportunity to demagogue the findings, as opposed to fixing the problems. What a system! And if Pelosi is the new Speaker, it will get worse. Congressional oversight will then become the tool to so harass/embarrass the Bush administration as to lay the groundwork for a Democratic take over of the White House in 2008...and this when there are critical issues of both foreign and domestic policy to debate and resolve. I see myself hoping that the Republicans maintain control of both houses, not because I am happy with the job they have done, but because I am concerned as to the damage that the Democrats, as the majority party, may do!

posted by: RAZ on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Bruce Bartlett not surprisingly given his consistent criticism of President Bush supports the Democrats in this election.

However of note is that he states, "[i]n short, when I vote Democratic next week for the first time in my life, what I am really voting for is gridlock. I am not voting for the Democratic Party's policies, most of which I still oppose."

Considering he previously stated that he wasn't voting for President Bush in 2004 and that there would be a civil war within the Republican Party if Bush won, I wonder who he voted for in 2004. Either he voted for John Kerry in which case he is lying in his statement above or alternatively he voted for a third party candidate in which case his article is misleading as one presumes that by voting "Democratic for the first time in his life" that he previously voted Republican.

posted by: Ian on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

The authors seem to ignore a couple things in what I was able to read:
1. We went to war 5 years ago. A declared state of war tends to favor the Executive over the legislative in foreign and national security policy.
2. 37 years is an awfully short timeframe to understand the relations of the Executive and the Legislative branches vis a vis foreign and national security policy.
3. Perhaps part of the problem with American foreign and national security policy since Vietnam is the excessive interference of the Legislative branch in the Executive's powers. Bush and Cheney et al. made corrective moves to undo the damage post-Vietnam legislative oversight has caused.

posted by: Steven on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Ian: I believe you are mistaken -- Bruce voted for Bush in 2004, though he wasn't thrilled about it.

Where are you getting this info?

posted by: Dan on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

I agree with RAZ that meaningful oversight in a partisan atmosphere is pretty difficult. But that only applies to criticism that is ideologically and politically compatible with the Democratic party's prejudices. I don't see why the Republicans in Congress couldn't have pushed the Administration to be more aggressive in areas where they have been delinquent, such as propaganda and information warfare. It's hard to picture the Democrats using that as a club, because then they'd be advocating better PR for the Administration.

The same goes for increased domestic surveillance--I can't really see the Dems pushing for that in the current atmosphere. Even those who think we don't have enough troops in Iraq or Afghanistan probably wouldn't have to worry too much about Democrats jumping on that idea, since it's like poison to their base.

So partisanship explains why we don't have oversight protecting civil liberties or accusing the Administration of generalized incompetence, but it doesn't explain why we don't have oversight focused on wasteful spending, inadequate propaganda, underfunding of various defense programs, insufficently aggressive intelligence, etc. Those "right-themed" critiques would not provide ammo for the Dems because the caliber doesn't match their weapons.

posted by: srp on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]



You are correct. As you can see from this the link to the Ron Suskind article, two weeks before the 2004 Presidential election.

(Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ''if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.'')

He then goes on compare Bush's religious views with Al Qaida. Going by what Bartlett went on to say about Bush in the article, I presumed Bartlett voted against President Bush. Even if you reluctantly supported someone, it would be rare that you would be that critical.

I apologize for mistating Bartlett as he has said that he voted for Bush http://www.amconmag.com/2006/2006_03_13/article.html which while shocking to me given his harsh rhetoric regarding the Bush administration two weeks before the election, appears to be the case.

Once again, I apologize to you and alll your readers for getting it wrong.

posted by: Ian on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Dan you are correct. I want to apologize to you and all your readers as I was incorrect. I concluded based on Bruce Bartlett's statement, "If George W. Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3" http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?ex=1255665600&en=890a96189e162076&ei=5090 two weeks before the election that he hadn't voted for Bush, when he in fact claims he had. http://www.amconmag.com/2006/2006_03_13/article.html

While I am shocked considering in that same NY Times interview he goes on to compare Bush's religious faith to Al Qaida terrorists, apparently he did vote for Bush.

More dilligent factchecking on my part, would have been helpful. Once again, my apologies.

posted by: Ian on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

Ornstein and Mann prompt some reflections on the sterotypical, indeed legendary, egos of politicians on the Hill and especially of Senators.

This is no myth, or at least it wasn't when I worked there. Contrary to what one might think, a deeply felt conviction of one's own importance is not incompatible with personal amiability; I met a lot of Congressmen and Senators who were personally very pleasant people. Most of them -- along with a few who were not particularly pleasant as far as I observed -- also had a keen sense of turf, their turf, normally defined as anything to do with the politics of their state or district and anything falling within the jurisdiction of the committees on which they served. They were most comfortable with strong Presidents (weak Presidents tended to make them nervous) but regarded as a matter of turf their right to give administration officials a hard time at hearings or on the floor, even if they belonged to the President's party. This didn't guarantee effective oversight, especially on subjects that didn't often make the television news or the front page of the Post, but Congressional ego and turf-consciousness did put limits on the things a President could get away with.

Things have changed a lot since I was in Washington. I understand some of the reasons but still find today's doormat Congress hard to grasp. It will never capture the public imagination, for example, that funding for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan still comes, year after year, through supplemental appropriations rammed through both houses after brief hearings by the respective Appropriations committees and no consideration by the authorizing committees at all. In the context of how things have traditionally been done on the Hill, though, this is a very, very big deal. Why Democrats -- other than Sen. Byrd, of course -- haven't screamed bloody murder about it I don't know. Why even Republicans, at least in the Senate, haven't objected is at least as tough for me to understand.

The thing is, Senators get elected for six year terms. In the nature of things some of them are elected by states dominated by their party; if they cross a President by insisting on Congressional prerogatives the most they risk is some angry e-mail. Others -- the ones elected in 2004 -- know they will be around after George Bush is gone. Some of these guys spent years out of their lives trying to become Senators, and now that they are there they're content to act like so many pissant backbench Congressmen, soldiers for the President's next campaign.

I would have thought the degree of self-abnegation required for such a role would be incompatible with the large (and occasionally enormous) egos usually associated with Senators. But I've been out of Washington for a long time.

posted by: Zathras on 10.31.06 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

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