In 1979 Congress did something both bold and unusual. That year, President Carter was attempting to build a stronger relationship with mainland China to create a united front in East Asia. To do this, he planned on ending America’s defense agreement with Taiwan. However, in a total reversal, Congress took the reins on U.S. foreign policy by passing its own legislation on Taiwan and scuttled President Carter’s plan.
The Taiwan Relations Act strengthened America’s ties to Taiwan and fostered the relationship we continue to share today. It also displayed the immense power Congress has to set American foreign policy that lasts longer than any presidential terms. When Congress decides to take action, it is in the best interests of the Foreign Service to be part of that conversation.
Though Congress has had the ability to set foreign policy for decades, only the Executive Branch has the bureaucracy, the intelligence capabilities, and the information chains working around the clock to implement its own notions of foreign affairs. Instead of a bureaucracy, members of Congress have to rely on their own overburdened staffers or drawn out hearings to get the information they need. These congressional staffers often have high turnover rates, multiple issue areas to work on, and little to no field experience in foreign policy. This, combined with the need for consensus and compromise, makes Congress the underdog when it comes to formulating foreign policy. It also makes them eager consumers of information—information that, very often, the Foreign Service has at its disposal.