Foreign Travel By Members of Congress (Part III)

As I explained previously (here and here), I’ve been writing a piece that examines Congress’s involvement in international diplomacy. One half of the article documents the nature and extent of the contemporary practice, while the other analyzes that practice from a separation-of-powers angle. As the data in the last post demonstrated, legislative diplomacy in the form of CODEL travel is a major form of engagement between the United States and foreign countries. Now I want to discuss some of the reasons why the numbers from the last post are significant.

First, the findings at least partially contradict the common perception that CODEL travel is nothing more than a series of taxpayer-funded boondoggles for profligate legislators. With places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan among the most common destinations, and with members of congressional committees such as Foreign Affairs and Armed Services traveling more than their counterparts on other committees, it is apparent that something other than vacationing is going on. Wikileaks confirms as much—an overwhelming majority of the State Department cables show legislators using foreign travel to gather information about economic, political, and social conditions in host countries. The idea, it seems, is that legislators can educate themselves by meeting with foreign officials and personally observing foreign conditions, and then use their knowledge to develop more effective legislative solutions to foreign policy problems. Wikileaks shows that another rationale for CODEL travel is lobbying; legislators often use their meetings with foreign officials to press foreign governments to act in ways that promote U.S. interests or, less frequently, the interests of specific constituents. One might fairly question whether CODELs are effective means of pursuing these goals, but it’s clear that the goals are not sightseeing and leisure. The intermittent public debate on CODEL expenditures needs to acknowledge that.

Second, the results show that the conduct of foreign relations is, from an institutional perspective, more complicated than commonly assumed. In practice, diplomacy is not an executive prerogative; it’s a crowded field occupied by the President, State Department, and other executive actors, plus both chambers of Congress. And in practice, the Senate is not necessarily more involved in foreign relations than the House. As I explained before, House members participated in CODELs even more frequently than their Senate counterparts in 2009, both in aggregate and on a per-legislator basis.

Finally, I think the results are significant because they call for some new thinking about the separation of powers in the context of foreign affairs. A few aspects of the doctrine should be pretty straightforward: Legislative diplomacy generally cannot intrude upon diplomatic functions—such as negotiating treaties—that Article II assigns to the President, and communications carried out for the purpose of fact-finding are constitutional as an exercise of Congress’s implied power to investigate in furtherance of enumerated Article I powers. But beyond that, formalist analysis is probably unable adequately to account for the contemporary practice. For example, as a textual matter is it unclear why CODELs can lobby foreign governments, and why Senator Kerry could undertake missions to Pakistan and Afghanistan on President Obama’s behalf. The alternative is to adopt a functionalist analysis that renders legislative diplomacy constitutional as a form of constitutional custom, or as the product of an executive delegation of Article II diplomacy power, but doing so results in a series of additional complications. Functionalism, for example, typically isn’t used for converse analyses of these kinds; the usual inquiry—such as in Youngstown—is whether custom or legislative delegation supports a gloss on executive power. Moreover, the possibility of executive delegation would operate in tension with the principle of the unitary executive. In working through these issues, I hope to develop a few insights for people interested in constitutional law and those involved in legislative diplomacy, and also to illustrate one way in which Congress exerts more influence in foreign affairs than is often assumed.

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