Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Professor’s Take: A letter to the White House, not Iran

Henry R. Nau is a professor of political science and international affairs.

The letter from 47 Republican senators to the supreme leader of Iran about nuclear negotiations has unleashed a gusher of criticism and charges of unprecedented congressional behavior. The criticism is fair enough, but the charges of unprecedented behavior are overwrought.

Did Congress overstep its role in foreign policy? The president is commander in chief, but the House appropriates money for defense and the Senate ratifies treaties. On any important issues, the two branches must work together. The proposed agreement with Iran, even though it is not a treaty, is certainly an important issue – one to which students at GW should pay attention.

Congress is equal to the executive and judicial branches of government. When the Democrats controlled it for 50 of the 60 years between 1933 and 1995, the press called it “the People’s House.” Now, under Republican control, it is more often referred to by the press as obstructionist or worse.

This is true despite the fact that elections in the fall of last year convincingly placed Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. Yet President Barack Obama has chosen to ignore “the People’s House” and acted arrogantly to circumvent Congress through executive actions, on both domestic and foreign policy issues. His determination to do so on a potential Iran agreement triggered the Republican letter.

The only criticism of the letter that sticks is that it should have been addressed to the White House, rather than to the supreme leader of Iran. Congressional politics involves a two-party system, and divided government is now the rule rather than the exception. In divided governments, presidents must lead.

Republican presidents lived with and led Congress when Democrats controlled one or both houses. President Ronald Reagan accomplished major policy changes with Democratic support. He met or talked with more than 450 members of Congress during his first six months in office to pass his economic and defense programs. President Harry Truman initiated the major Cold War policies of containment when Republicans controlled both houses from 1947 to 1949.

Obama has done nothing comparable to lead a Republican Congress. He has few close personal ties with lawmakers even in his own party.

I lived through the polarized debates that bedeviled Reagan’s term in office, and worked for his administration during that time. And polarization plagued the George W. Bush administration, more so than the current one.

Polarization is not new. And it is not insurmountable today anymore than 35 years ago. But it does require a president who can lead with – not without – Congress. Absent that, Congress will act – sometimes inappropriately.

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