Will the push to oversee the Iran negotiations lead to a smarter Senate? When the Corker-Menendez bill passed committee, we noted that Sen. Corker had been working not merely to assure Congress’s say in the Iran agreement, but also to strengthen the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as an institution. Now, as the Iran review process moves forward, Corker continues to push his broader agenda.
James Arkin at Real Clear Politics reports on a series of briefings being held by Sen. Corker to prepare for the eventual deal. The briefings have been, it appears, substantive, thoughtful and frank; senators of both parties are saying that the process is giving them a deeper understanding of the issues, including the relationship of the Iran negotiation to other aspects of American policy in the Middle East. It’s heartening to see that Senators on both sides of the aisle seem to be raising sound questions that stay focused on strategic issues, rather than looking for headlines.
This is important in ways that go beyond the Iran issue. Congress needs to be heard more in foreign policy, but to do that, has to raise its game. Congressional committee hearings too often turn into grandstanding events in which Senators and Congressmen perform the legislative equivalent of ambulance chasing. That generates press in the short term but undermines the effectiveness of the institution in the long term. It also shifts policy making and policy debate from the public, deliberative arena of Congress into the corridors of Foggy Bottom and the warrens of the NSC. One of the things that Congressional deliberation is supposed to accomplish is to build public understanding of the choices America faces and, hopefully, support for the choices the government makes. When that deliberative process is superficial and inconsequential, the policy making process goes on, as it must, but not in any of the ways the Founding Fathers hoped.
The problems of Congress go well beyond any single committee. In many ways, the entire legislative process needs a thorough overhaul. On the same day that the Arkin piece appeared, RCP’s poll survey showed that roughly 75 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. These numbers don’t change much regardless of which party is in power; perhaps the single belief about Washington that is most widely shared around the country is that Congress is doing a very good job. These numbers have been around so long that we are inured to them, but we shouldn’t be. The institution that the Founders saw as the main instrument of federal governance isn’t working well. That has many consequences—poorly drafted, poorly conceived laws being foremost among them, and a weak oversight process being another.
But it also leads to overstretch by the other two branches. America has to have a government, and if Congress isn’t doing its job, others naturally step in to fill the void. In fact, many of the failures in the American system that worry and anger the public most are related to decades of Congressional underperformance.
This is one reason Senator Corker’s patient determination to strengthen one of the Senate’s historically most significant committees is so welcome. One can, as many of his Democratic and some of his Republican colleagues do, disagree with some of the decisions that the committee has come to under his stewardship. But from the perspective of history and the long term national interest, making this committee a place where well-informed representatives of the American people with varying points of view come together to deliberate over the strategic choices we make would be a significant legacy for a statesman to leave.
Corker’s work on the SFRC, which incidentally began with very strong support from then-Ranking Member Robert Menendez that seems to be continuing under the leadership of Sen. Carson, will not in itself be enough to turn Congress around. But Corker is doing good work and making this key committee more effective will significantly enhance an American foreign policy system that has not, to put it mildly, been covering itself in glory since 9/11.