The Trump administration on May 24 announced an emergency declaration to sell billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval.
This comes just a month after Congress passed legislation demanding the halt of U.S. aid for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen against Houthi rebels loosely aligned with Iran.
How Congress responds to the emergency arms sales may signal whether the Yemen vote represents an isolated event or the first salvo in a campaign to limit the president’s foreign policy powers.
My current research examines individuals who once saw Congress as a check on presidential interventionism abroad. After the Vietnam War, legislators like Frank Church and Dick Clark wanted to rethink national security structures and priorities. Their foreign policy revolt inspired the War Powers Act of 1973, the law Congress used to express its disapproval of Saudi aid.
Revisiting this history – and the difficulty legislators have had reigning in presidential power – provides context for analyzing recent events.
The birth of the imperial presidency
The Constitution’s separation of powers is at the heart of the current conflict between Trump and Congress. Separation of powers means each branch of government has distinct but overlapping duties, making negotiation and compromise necessary in forging policies.
In terms of foreign affairs, the president manages diplomacy while the Congress funds it, regulates commerce and approves treaties.
But when it comes to war powers, the Constitution is vague.
Congress – with two bodies, 535 members and a tendency toward deliberation – has the sole right “To declare war, [and] grant letters of marque and reprisal,” the latter being 18th century methods of limited warfare.
The more nimble presidency directs and deploys the armed forces as commander-in-chief.
The terse Constitution says little about how the two bodies should manage these divided responsibilities. Presidential prerogative generally won the day as U.S. power grew in the 19th century, though not without periodic dissent. Most of the 200 plus foreign military deployments in U.S. history – which include only five declared wars – lacked advanced congressional authorization.
This history of executive-legislative jockeying is largely absent from discussions of foreign policy due to the politics of the early Cold War. As communist paranoia and the threat of nuclear weapons stoked domestic unease, Congress empowered the executive branch.
Congress had earlier given up control of key trade and economic powers during the Roosevelt era. Now it embraced long-taboo collective security treaties and conceded to unilateral military deployments and covert operations championed by the White House.
Most legislators agreed the United States had a global mission and the president was best positioned to guide it. “Politics,” as the motto paraphrasing Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg went, “must stop at the water’s edge.”
Disagreements over emphasis or direction usually occurred in private meetings or at the edges of budget requests. This expanded executive authority gave rise to what some scholars call the “imperial presidency,” a term coined by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1973.