I tend to resist hyperbolic assessments of the condition of American society. But when I reflect on what is different now from when I entered politics, it is clear that partisan divisions are much sharper than they were in past decades.
These divisions routinely affect U.S. foreign policy in ways that they rarely did in years past. It was never strictly the case that "politics stopped at the water's edge." During the Cold War and the Vietnam War, for example, it was common for some candidates to be attacked as being soft on Communism and others to be attacked as warmongers. But there almost always was an undercurrent of bipartisanship and communication between party leaders on national security issues that enabled action when it was needed.
That is not the case today. In recent years, the U.S. Congress has been unable to act decisively on foreign policy, or, in many cases, even debate international issues. Faced with reflexive partisan roadblocks and the growing number of unresolvable hot button issues that get attached to foreign policy bills, Congress has retreated from legislation dealing with foreign policy.
Consider that since the beginning of 2007—roughly the last six years—only two foreign-policy initiatives have come to the Senate floor in an amendable format. These were the New START Treaty in December 2010 and the reauthorization of America's global efforts to combat AIDS and other communicable diseases in 2008. We have had some votes on foreign-policy nominations; a few smaller measures have passed without a floor vote; and some stray foreign-policy questions have reared their heads on omnibus appropriations bills. But only in these two occasions, could the Senate be characterized as publicly working through a foreign-policy issue on the Senate floor. It is extraordinary to think that foreign policy gets only one turn every three years on the Senate Floor.
In fact, a comprehensive Foreign Affairs Authorization Bill—the flagship legislation that should be passed annually as the partner to the Defense Authorization bill—has not been passed and signed into law since 1985. As Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in 2003 and again in 2005, I worked to secure unanimous passage of the Foreign Affairs Authorization Bill in Committee, only to have the bill pulled from the Senate floor on both occasions due to controversies.
Even in crises, Congress has been unable to muster a consensus for legislative action. In 2002, Congress authorized prospectively the military intervention in Iraq that occurred the following year. But Congress was unable to coalesce behind a unified perspective as the war evolved. In 2011, as President Obama committed the United States to hostilities in Libya without a Congressional vote, Congress was unable to effectively defend its prerogatives or even decide on the terms of a meaningful debate.
Unfortunately, many members of Congress have reacted to this situation by emphasizing areas of disagreement rather than legislative achievement. Congress's foreign-policy role increasingly has centered on reactive opposition to the Executive Branch.
We have seen this as treaty ratification during the Obama Administration has come to a virtual standstill. Many of you are aware of the travails facing higher-profile treaties such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But in this Congress, even bilateral tax treaties with friendly countries such as Hungary, Luxembourg, and Switzerland have been held up. In past years, tax treaties—which almost always have demonstrable benefits for U.S. jobs and businesses—have been passed without any controversy.
Increasingly, Congressional foreign-policy involvement is starting and stopping with debate on immediate foreign-policy controversies that are reflected in the 24-hour news cycle. Ironically, even as Congress is becoming more willing to politicize foreign policy, interest in international affairs among members continues to be spotty. Congress is largely failing to pursue systematic reviews of broader strategic questions in foreign policy. The less meaningful debate we have on genuine foreign-policy issues, the easier it is for members of Congress and our whole political class to dismiss foreign policy as a secondary issue that can be gamed for partisan advantage.
Understandably, few members have extensive experience with foreign-policy issues. Even fewer would list foreign-policy concerns among their primary motivations for running for office. Many will see little connection between foreign policy and their own electoral success. But foreign-policy debates in Congress too often are mired in simplistic and impressionistic narratives that have little bearing on the problems that are most likely to confront us.
Some will take the attitude that national-security policy is the prerogative of the president, and given Congress' intensifying partisanship it makes sense for the Executive Branch to go its own way, reaching out to Congress only when it is absolutely necessary. But this would be an extremely dangerous course for our country that would reduce prospects for dealing with the challenges that I have cited.