Nothing New About the Fight Between Congress and the President

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET
  • Julian E. Zelizer Author, 'The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society'

Tensions are high on Capitol Hill. Every day seems to bring another political controversy over national security. President Bush is refusing to share with Congress information about the NSA spying program. He has asserted executive power in Iraq, even as Republican legislators are starting to challenge him. The story is the same when dealing with issues not directly tied to national security -- he is refusing to allow former White House aides to testify about the firing of U.S. attorneys. Congress has responded with investigations, subpoenas and proposals to limit the president's options in the war.

Some pundits are lamenting the politicization of national security that, they say, has taken place in recent years. Yet throughout American history, politics never stopped at the water's edge. This jousting between the president and Congress is what our nation has always been about. The two branches have a long history of fighting over executive privilege, war power, shaping public perceptions and more.

Congress exerted significant influence on national security issues even as presidential power increased. The result was that the president and Congress--especially at times of divided government--battled as the parties struggled to gain advantage on national security. The executive branch gained administrative muscle with the creation of the National Security Council and the CIA in 1947. At the same time, legislators have used constitutional and political powers as a counterweight.

One area of chronic tension has been executive privilege. The Constitution does not mention the right of presidents to withhold information from Congress. Yet, presidents have exerted that right dating back to George Washington, who in 1796 refused to share with the Senate documents relating to the Jay Treaty.

Sometimes similar struggles have taken on different meanings at different periods. One of the most famous battles over executive privilege, for example, took place during the Cold War. In the 1950s, intra-party tensions were as challenging as inter-party, for Democrats and Republicans were highly factionalized.

Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower promoted the notion of executive privilege to protect his administration from the right wing of his own party. He refused to allow staffers to testify or to release information to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his anti-communist investigations in 1954. Eisenhower, who allegedly used the term more than 40 forty times in his presidency, warned Republican congressmen and advisors, "Any man who testifies as to the advice he gave me won't be working for me that night! I will not allow people around me to be subpoenaed and you might just as well know it now!"

The second issue that Congress and the president have long fought over is war power. These conflicts revolved around what authority each branch had, whether it involved spending, sending troops overseas, or influencing military strategy. On this subject, the Founders again left enough ambiguity in the Constitution so that factions can easily disagree.

When President Harry S. Truman sent troops to Korea in 1950, for example, he decided that the executive branch had the authority based on decisions by the United Nations rather than Congress. During Vietnam, between 1966 and 1973, Congress started to reassert its power -- first through congressional investigations and public pressure and then through legislative proposals to prohibit spending on specific parts of the war in Southeast Asia. Senator Frank Church warned of "Cae-sarism" resulting from excessive presidential power. He said, "The Roman Caesars did not spring full blown from the brow of Zeus. Subtly and insidiously, they stole their powers away from an unsuspecting Senate." (I wrote about this in the March 2007 issue of The American Prospect.)

Legislators like Church, John Sherman Cooper, George S. McGovern and others played a pivotal role in pressuring President Richard M. Nixon to draw down America's involvement. The War Powers Act of 1973 placed new limitations on the ability of the president to keep troops abroad without congressional consent.

The final type of inter-branch struggle has been more subtle. It has to do with controlling public discussion over war.

One difficult political challenge in war is influencing how the public thinks about the conflict. In 1917, during World War I, Woodrow Wilson's administration established the Committee on Public Information, to sell the war to the public. So congressional opponents of the war, like Sen. Robert LaFollette, used their platform on Capitol Hill to probe the reasons why the administration actually went to war. Even in WWII, "the Good War," the nation saw intense efforts by the executive branch, via Department of Treasury, to overcome isolationists in the legislative branch and around the nation.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, the Bush administration expended tremendous effort in defining the war against Iraq as an effort to protect democracy, rather than oil. Though this battle was not about constitutional power, it has been no less important and no less intense.

To be sure, there is evidence that the politicization of national security has increased in recent years, as partisanship has intensified on Capitol Hill and some in the administration seem to lack any concern about diving into the political muck.

Nonetheless, we must recognize that the politics of national security have a long history. Democrats in Congress have started to become more aggressive in challenging the president, not just on intellectual grounds but politically. Democrats are starting to feel more comfortable, and confident, with the tactics required to take on a president -- tactics used, to some degree, throughout American history.