The Imperial Presidency Is Alive and Well,Don’t Mistake Impeachment for a Congressional Effort to Claw Back Power

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Less than a week after President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution requiring Trump to seek congressional approval for any further military action against Iran. The Senate will likely pass a similar resolution soon, with several Republicans expected to break ranks to vote to check the president’s war-making power. And Congress is simultaneously deep in an impeachment process born of the president’s dealings with Ukraine.

One might be tempted to conclude from all this activity that the legislature is finally clawing back some of the foreign policy and national security power that it has delegated to the president over the last half century, and especially since 9/11. And to be sure, in the weeks before the Soleimani strike, the House heard testimony from a parade of diplomats and national security officials about their experiences making and defending U.S. policy toward Ukraine. The Senate held hearings on the inspector general’s report on the origins of the FBI investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election. And Congress passed the annual defense bill as well as a trade deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But don’t be fooled by the sudden congressional focus on foreign policy. Congress remains in a weak position to restrain the president overseas. The Democrats believe that Trump’s efforts to withhold aid to Ukraine until its government agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden constituted an abuse of power and necessitated a vote to impeach the president. But the outcome of the Senate trial will reflect domestic politics, not senators’ views about legislative oversight of foreign affairs. Congress’s inability to pass a veto-proof bill to limit the president’s war powers in Iran, moreover, is one more sign that the balance of power on foreign policy isn’t shifting back toward the legislative branch.

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