From Gridlock to Crash

The debt ceiling debate is surely not Congress’s finest hour. But here are five times that the legislative branch has really gotten in the way of the White House’s foreign policy.


When George Washington visited the Senate in August 1789 to get approval to negotiate a treaty with the Creek Indians, he became the first president to throw up his hands in frustration at dealing with the legislative branch. Senators demanded additional documents and tried to refer the decision to a committee. To which Washington reportedly said, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here,” and promptly left.

So, you see, Congress has always been a pain in the neck for American presidents. Some 222 years later, as Washington squabbles over the debt ceiling (which has led some to call this Congress the worst ever), a bit of context is in order. Here are five examples of times when congressional combativeness really screwed up White House foreign policy.


Peace? No thanks.

In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson was one of the strongest advocates for creating the world’s first international diplomatic body — the League of Nations — in the hopes of preventing another world war. The only problem? Congress refused to ratify it. Senate majority leader and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Henry Cabot Lodge, argued that the League would tie the United States to an expensive commitment while neglecting the country’s own interests. He also feared getting further entangled in Europe’s messy politics. Personal animosity between Wilson and Lodge prevented any compromise and in March 1920, the Senate voted 49-35 to defeat the treaty. The United States never joined and the League soon withered. Warren Harding was elected president that same year partially due to his strong opposition to joining the League. Without the support of the United States, the League of Nations failed to respond to the growing fascist threat in Europe and we all got sucked into another world war.

National Archive/Newsmakers

Sanctioning Saddam

Talk about bad timing. During budget talks in 1997, House Republicans refused to allow payment of $900 million the country owed the United Nations in back dues. It just so happened to coincide with President Bill Clinton’s appeal to the U.N. to back tougher measures against Saddam Hussein, who had recently expelled weapons inspectors. White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, called the House’s move “utterly bone-headed” and “particularly ill-timed … at a moment when we are attempting to work with the United Nations to build international support for an appropriate response to provocations by Saddam Hussein.”


Kissinger: Bad for the Jews?

Henry Kissinger was the ultimate supporter of realpolitik, and the secretary of state couldn’t stand Congress trying to meddle in on U.S.-Soviet rapprochement efforts in the early 1970s over a silly little thing like human rights. At issue was the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prevented normal U.S. trade relations with countries that restrict emigration and human rights. It came in response to Soviet efforts to limit Jewish emigration by imposing taxes on people trying to flee repression there.

Kissinger (himself a Jew) and President Richard Nixon talked about their frustration in recently released White House audio recordings:

Henry Kissinger: Let’s face it: The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. It may be a humanitarian concern…

President Nixon: Well, we can’t blow up the world because of it.

Henry Kissinger: There is no unrestricted right to emigration. If the Indians don’t let Farsis out, it would never occur to us to attach a rider to a foreign policy decision. And I think that the Jewish community in this country, on that issue, is behaving unconscionably. It’s behaving traitorously. I find-

President Nixon: Why can’t we get [Henry] Jackson [one of the co-sponsors of the amendment] to get off the damn thing? He feels it, though. He is. He’s close to the Jewish community; he’s close to the Israelis.

National Archive/Newsmakers 

The Hawks of War

The country was only 32 years old in 1812, when war broke out with England for the second time. Ill-prepared, the United States almost became a footnote to history. President James Madison, fearful that a fight with England could destroy the country’s shipping trade, had little enthusiasm to go to war, but Congress — dominated by a group of young men known as the “war hawks” — forced his hand. What’s more, the hawks, led by Henry Clay and John Calhoun, were members of the president’s own party. Some historians say that beyond the official reasons for the war — Britain’s control of shipping lanes and targeting of American ships — another factor was a desire to expand into the British territory of Canada, since efforts to take more land from Indians weren’t going so well. The hawks won out. And when the war came, so did the United States — barely. The Brits reached all the way to Washington and set fire to the Capitol and the White House, before signing a peace treaty in 1814.

A 2006 survey of presidential historians ranked James Madison’s failure to keep the United States out of the war with Britain as the sixth worst presidential blunder in U.S. history.

National Archive/Newsmakers

Border police

Congress has a long history screwing up immigration — and fighting with the executive branch over the issue. When Congress first tried to pass a law restricting all Chinese immigration to the United States in 1878 (due to a growing anti-foreigner backlash in the wake of an economic downturn … sound familiar?), President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed it. They kept pushing, however, and in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively closed the borders to foreigners — the bill was pushed by the Ku Klux Klan, which had upwards of 4 million members and significant political clout. And, of course, immigration remains a majorly contested issue today. President Obama’s efforts to overhaul the country’s immigration system (which all agree is sorely broken) have faced stiff opposition by the Republican-controlled House. The president’s domestic policy advisor Melody Barnes told Politico earlier this year: “Often when the White House just puts something on the table, it can become a point of conflict and not an inflection point to move forward.” It’s a sentiment George Washington probably understood well.

National Archives/Newsmakers

Robert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
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