Relations with Congress

The basic Congressional responsibilities in foreign affairs are outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

  • Article 1 Section 7 mandates that all revenue bills originate in the House of Representatives.
  • Article 1 Section 8 gives Congress responsibility to provide for the common defense and to regulate commerce with foreign nations.
  • Article 2 Section 2 gives the Senate power to ratify treaties by a two-thirds vote and to confirm Ambassadorial or other high level appointments.

In addition to these constitutional provisions, the intentions of America’s Founding Fathers are clearly spelled out in Federalist Paper #63., written by James Madison.  As “Publius,” the author articulates the rationale behind entrusting major foreign policy matters to the Senate, a body intended to be composed of wise men less subject to popular passions than members of the House of Representatives. 

While there is no constitutional requirement that State Department officials give testimony before Congress, the above budgetary and confirmation powers ensure that in practice Congress is consulted closely on all operational, political and senior personnel matters.  By law, certain information can be withheld from Congress when sharing it would be “inconsistent with public interest,” but these cases are rare and risk harmful consequences for the Department. The Secretary of State each year gives testimony regarding the State Department’s budgetary needs and often testifies at other times on policy matters.  Other senior officials may also testify formally or informally.  In general, Department officials maintain regular contacts with key legislators and committees such as the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the House Committee on Appropriations.



The history of relations between Congress and the State Department can be traced back to the Continental Congress.  In 1775 it established the Committee of Secret Correspondence (later named the Committee for Foreign Affairs), which among other actions appointed Benjamin Franklin as Commissioner to France.  In 1781 that committee ceased being a part of Congress and was established as a separate executive entity called the Department of Foreign Affairs.  In 1789 it was renamed the Department of State.  Reflecting the high status enjoyed by the Department, Congress in its Presidential Succession Act of 1792 placed the Secretary of State fourth in the line of succession, ahead of all other cabinet secretaries.

The essential relationship between Congress and the State Department has not changed since its early days, though Congress in recent years has asserted greater influence, for example by requiring that the Department produce five annual multi country reports on human rights, international narcotics control, terrorism, religious freedom and trafficking in persons.  Congress also mandated the 1999 consolidation of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) into the State Department. Personal relationships between Congress and the State Department over the years have been uneven. Thomas Melia’s paper on Congressional staff attitudes provides a balanced account of the views from Capital Hill in 2002. In order to help strengthen the ties between the two institutions, about a dozen Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are given the opportunity to spend a year gaining legislative experience by working in Congressional offices, either through a Pearson Amendment detail assignment or a training assignment through the American Political Science Association’s Congressional Fellowship Program.


The Congressional Budget Process

Article 1 Section 7 of the Constitution provides that all budget bills originate in the House of Representatives. There are three phases to the budget process. 

  • First, the President establishes general fiscal guidelines for development of the budget. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) then generally gives specific budget targets to the federal executive agencies. Such agencies, including the State Department, submit their requests for review to OMB in the early fall. The OMB typically discusses and negotiates issues with the federal agencies before submitting the package to the White House for final review. The President then transmits the budget to Congress not later than the first Monday in February. Function 150 of the budget includes funding for all U.S. international activity, including the work of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
  • Second, Congress considers and modifies the President’s budget under the procedures established by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. This act requires a budget resolution that establishes total spending levels and provides the framework within which Congressional committees prepare appropriations bills. Appropriations bills originate in the House and provide the budget authority for the majority of federal programs. House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees hold hearings with executive departments and agencies, and then draft bills for their respective houses of Congress. Once passed by the House of Representatives, the bills are forwarded to the Senate for action. After differences between the bills passed by the two bodies have been reconciled and that version has cleared both houses, Congress then sends it to the President for signing. So that the government will have the funds and authority to conduct its business, this process should be completed by October 1, the start of the new fiscal year. If Congress has not enacted some or all of its appropriations bills by then, it must enact a “continuing resolution” that allows agencies to continue operations at a specified funding level until the requisite appropriations bills are passed.
  • Third, the budget is executed by Government agencies. They may not spend more funds than Congress has appropriated and may use funds only for the purposes specified by law.


The State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs
(the “H” Bureau)

The importance of Congress to the State Department is reflected by the elaborate organization and high professional standards of “H”, the Bureau of Legislative Affairs.  This bureau, the Department’s vital communications link with Congress, is subdivided into elements dealing with Senate Affairs, House Affairs, Global and Functional Affairs and Legislative Operations.  The House Affairs and Senate Affairs elements are further subdivided to individuals with direct contact to key committees in Congress.  Examples include the House Committee on Appropriations and the Senate’s Committee Intelligence.  Legislative Operations deals directly with individual legislators through Congressional inquiries and Congressional travel units.  Specific Global and Functional Affairs offices are responsible for major programs of interest to Congress.

Congress communicates with “H” in several ways.  Individual legislators will often address letters either on policy concerns or with constituent questions.  Constituents with visa or passport issues are typically directed to “H”, which gives priority attention to all such queries.  Legislators and staffers will also call and email seeking information on operational and substantive questions.  “H” also facilitates communication between members of Congress and the regional and functional bureaus of the State Department, and sometimes provides fact sheets for legislators who require information before making television appearances.  Although the purpose of “H” is to facilitate interaction, it does not prevent direct communication between bureaus and members of Congress. In practice, however, most bureaus usually contact legislators through “H.” 

The Legislative Operations unit of “H” handles the logistics of legislative travel abroad. They work with embassies to arrange meetings, lodging and travel plans, in addition to many other small details, to make sure each trip runs smoothly.  “H” also coordinates with the Department of Defense to ensure proper security for legislators when they travel overseas.


Major Congressional Committees

On budget matters the State Department maintains particularly close contact with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, since they provide funding for all its operations and programs.  Other committees important to the State Department’s mission are the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which oversee State Department programs.  Authorization bills that originate in those committees provide guidelines for program funding before appropriation bills are passed.  For certain sensitive matters that cannot be discussed openly, the Department also maintains close contact with the Intelligence Committees of both the House and Senate. 

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is charged with exercising the treaty and confirmation powers assigned to Congress under the U.S. Constitution.  This responsibility includes the confirmation of ambassadors and other high-level State Department officials nominated by the President.  Such nominees may come from within or outside the ranks of career Foreign Service Officers.  Career officers are usually recommended to the White House by the State Department.  Once nominated, the appointee must be approved by the Committee, and then the full Senate, after appearing at a confirmation hearing where he or she makes a brief statement and answers questions from senators present.  The State Department assumes responsibility for preparing appointees, setting up pre hearing appointments and arranging formal and informal calls on senators.  H may also set up informational briefings or mock hearings. 

The confirmation process can be quite lengthy.  Nominees must pass a rigorous security check, make a full financial disclosure and take any steps necessary to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.  On rare occasions Members of Congress will purposefully place holds on nominees for months, even years, to try to influence certain State Department actions or policies.  Peter Burleigh, a 33-year veteran FSO nominated by the President to be ambassador to the Philippines, fell victim to a Senator who was upset about the Department’s treatment of a United Nations whistle blower.  After nine months, with no end to the standoff in sight, Mr. Burleigh resigned in frustration.  Article 2 Section 2 of the Constitution also gives the President power to make recess appointments (i.e., those made when the Senate is out of session).  Such appointments are meant to be temporary (a maximum of two years) and expire at the end of the Senate’s next session.  This authority has been used by Presidents to appoint controversial nominees, but risks provoking a backlash.


Congressional travel

Congressional travel is a major means by which U.S. legislators experience the real world of American diplomacy.  It affords senators and members of Congress opportunities to exercise oversight and better understand the operations of U.S. missions abroad, while at the same allowing Foreign Service Officers to gain the undivided attention of legislators.

There are four types of Congressional travel: 

  1. Official delegations.  Legislators traveling in this capacity work closely with the State Department and typically carry out diplomatic or quasi diplomatic functions.  For example, they might be part of a public-private delegation to a major United Nations conference, or comprise the official U.S. delegation to a foreign leader’s inauguration.
  2. Congressional delegations (CODELs).  These trips, while often encouraged by the State Department, are typically arranged by the members themselves.  The State Department works with U.S. embassies abroad to arrange meetings, hotels and travel within the country visited, and with the Department of Defense on airlift requirements.
  3. Congressional staff delegations (STAFFDELs).  Very similar to CODELs, though usually involving much less protocol, STAFFDELs also travel abroad to assess U.S. Government operations and gather information to share with their parent Congressional committees or legislative offices.
  4. NODELs.  This term is used to describe situations where senators or members of Congress travel abroad with the support of unofficial (non governmental) sponsors.  A NODEL uses its own budget and may wish to arrange meetings or events independently of the State Department.  When called upon, embassies typically offer facilitative assistance to NODELs as a courtesy. 

Funds for official travel overseas are administered by the Department of State on behalf of the U.S. Congress.  Receipts or written authorizations from Congressional authorities allow obligations and disbursements to be charged against specific Congressional travel accounts held by the U.S. Treasury.


Congressional Delegations—personal experiences

Congressional travel is a primary means by which members of Congress and their staffs interact with FSOs.

A Congressional Staffer Vignette

“Until now everything had gone rather smoothly and the main purpose of our trip - to review and evaluate the situation in South Asia- had been successfully accomplished.  The return stopover in Athens, however, was a different story.  Just before we stepped onto the plane in New Delhi, the embassy control officer handed me a disturbing telegram from Athens that infuriated the congressman.  Our long-held reservations at the Hotel Grande Bretagne had been canceled owing to “circumstances beyond the embassy’s control.”  The embassy blamed the hotel, which allegedly “overbooked”; it all had something to do with Vice President Spiro Agnew’s impending official visit to Greece the following week.  Instead we were to stay in “first class” facilities in the port city of Piraeus, somewhat distant from the capital’s center.  Peter (Congressman Frelinghuysen) was not at all pleased with the last-minute change and the more he mulled over it, the more it seemed like an affront...

We arrived at the Athens airport at approximately 2:00 am and were met by a Greek driver from the embassy.  Peter started to upbraid him for all the embassy’s sins until it became apparent that he spoke no English.  He only had orders to take us to our “luxurious” first class quarters, which turned out to be a kind of motel complex with individual cabins located in the middle of nowhere...

The next morning our control officer arrived.  He turned out to be an innocent young third secretary on his first assignment abroad.  He had never before been assigned to a CODEL and was substituting for the administrative officer, who allegedly had a scheduling conflict…

Eventually, some weeks after our return to Washington, Peter received a letter of apology from Ambassador Tasca, which I was told was requested by Assistant Secretary Sisco.  The best feature of our Greek sojourn was that it only lasted a couple of days and was finally over.”

bookChapman, John Chester.  From Foggy Bottom to Capitol Hill. Arlington, VA. Arlington Hall Press, 2000.

A Congressman’s Perspective

“I found it fascinating.  Intellectually, I am a fairly curious person.  But these were not vacations.  On a typical trip, I would start out in the country maybe at 7:30 am with a working breakfast.  I often had two working breakfasts.  Then I would insist on a schedule which I must say the embassies almost without exception were very accommodating in setting up for me (I never could have done it without the help that they gave me.), but I would generally insist on a schedule where I would have one meeting after another without any break, generally about an hour's duration, together with working breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  So I would usually start out at 7:30 am and go until 11:00 or later at night.

But one of the things that amazed me was how much you could learn about the problems we had to deal with in a particular country in a relatively brief period of time if you went at it in a very intensive fashion.  You could spend three or four days in a country and if you went from early in the morning until late at night, and you had access to the key people in the country, the leaders of the government, the leaders of the opposition if there was an opposition, leading intellectuals, your own embassy, other foreign diplomats, journalists, businessmen, students, and others, by the time you left, you came away with a pretty good fix on what the problems were, what the options were, what the possibilities were.”

Former Congressman Steven Solarz, Oral History Interview, November 18, 1996.

Foreign Service Perspectives

“Our biggest problem in 1979 was handling the eight different CODELS that descended on Leningrad, typically on weekends.  Each delegation usually consisted of two plane loads of Congressmen and Senators and their wives and staff, none of whom was often very interested in being briefed about Leningrad.  They were there for a good time.  They offered an opportunity, however, for us to meet local officials, who were otherwise unapproachable.  I took particular satisfaction in persuading the Ribicoff-Bellman delegation that it should try to meet with the First Secretary of Leningrad, Grigoriy Romanov, a tough little ideologue, very combative, a Napoleonic disposition.  I knew him only from occasional verbal bouts with him on November 7, or May First.  The Politburo obviously wanted the delegation to meet a much smoother member, Masherov, of Bylorussia, but, on my urging, the delegation pressed to meet with Romanov.  Ambassador Malcolm Toon supported my request, and accompanied the delegation when it met with Romanov.  What Romanov told us about his personality during this visit suggested that, had he won out in the power struggle that followed Brezhnev's death, rather than Gorbachev, we would not have had an end to the Cold War, but rather the reverse.

Small examples: Ribicoff spoke without notes, just off the cuff.  It was always rather difficult for an interpreter to follow.  In the middle of a long speech by Ribicoff, our interpreter instead of referring to the ‘tomb’ of the people who had been martyred, if you will, in World War II, he referred to the ‘grave.’  In the middle of the speech Romanov interrupted and chastised the interpreter, saying, ‘If you are an interpreter you should know the difference between a tomb and a grave.’  He was feisty and bad mannered. Bellman started talking about trade, trying to be polite to supplement what Ribicoff had said.  Romanov interrupted saying, ‘We don't need your trade.’ After dinner, where Romanov had all the fine artists of Leningrad perform for them at the guest house, I heard him talking to the senators saying, ‘And you mustn't believe the things your Consul General writes about me and about Leningrad.’”

Thompson R. Buchanan, ADST Oral History Interview, March 15, 1996. 

“We did have a lot of CODELs and often on long weekends: Labor Day or Easter or something like that.  People used to say, ‘You must get tired of those.’  Well, I didn't, because I felt it was so important that they come and visit SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] and understand about NATO.  There were so many governors, Congressmen, just groups who would say, ‘But we had no idea what NATO was all about; what it's doing and how wonderful this is.’ Wives, as well as husbands. I often had to cancel [other] plans for weekends, but, again, that was part of the job.”

Ambassador Anne Cox Chambers, ADST Oral History Interview, October 23, 1985.

“I think that Foreign Service officers tend to shy away from getting involved with the Congress.  And I think some of that stems from our primary contact with members of Congress, and that's those who come out on Congressional delegations when we're serving abroad.  By and large, those visits are difficult.  We tend to regard members of Congress as meddling in foreign policy, that their interests and priorities do not necessarily match ours.  Theirs tend to be oriented toward their constituencies; their views tend to be short-term.  Whereas we are concerned about longer-term relations abroad.  I think that, therefore, we build up this kind of negative impression, and I think some of it's quite justified.”

Ambassador Walter L. Cutler, ADST Oral History Interview, September 15, 1989.

“I developed two approaches for handling visiting delegations, whether they were congressional or gubernatorial — we had those, too.  We would have a working breakfast in which we would include the wives at the residence.  We would have separate tables.  We could seat 50 or 60 people in the main dining room.  We would have the key officers of the embassy come and brief the Americans before they went to meet with the Dutch.  This made sense for two reasons.  First, we would give them the briefing before they went.  Second, we wasted very little of their time because you have to eat breakfast.  We would serve them a southern breakfast with grits, ham and eggs, etc.  Then we would do the briefing.  We had it down until it was almost scientific.  We would give them a chance to ask their questions, etc., plus we included the wives.  It was their opportunity to be in — the briefings were unclassified.  We would have a separate briefing if it was classified.  We did have a lot of Congressional visits.

The other thing I worked out for distinguished visitors, and we had several of those, is I would have a stag dinner.  Women might be there, but it was not spouses.  After dinner, we would go into the main living room and the distinguished visitor and I would sit side by side.  He'd be there and I'd be here, the fireplace is in-between, nice roaring fire if it was wintertime.  We would start off chatting.  I would have three or four things, fairly provocative enough to start the thing going.  Then the other eight, 10, 12, 14 people sitting around would chime in.  This worked out beautifully.  The thing would go on for an hour and half or two hours.”

Ambassador William J. Dyess, ADST Oral History Interview, March 29, 1989.

“I can remember one occasion, again I was Chargé, when a very large group of Congressmen came...This might have been the Wolfe/Solarz group, but I am not sure.  Anyway, they were a large group, so large that we had to hold our dinner party in the garden of the house that the Ambassador was temporarily using.  My wife worked very hard in somebody else's house to put this affair on, and it was going quite nicely.  It was just about to reach the breakup point when this lady appeared, uninvited, wearing a two- piece dress which exposed her midriff (the Korean women -- all in modest Korean dress -- were shocked).  In a loud voice, she invited the entire CODEL to come with her up to the big Kisaeng house way up on the top of the hill on the northern side of the city.  I went along with them to see what would happen.  It was a full blown Kisaeng party -- music, girls, dancing, scotch, food. The Congressional wives were along, which was seldom the case.  This was her idea of how to win friends for her country, I guess, and her guests had a great time.  But all this had to be funded from somewhere.  A party at a place like that for 45 people is a mighty expensive affair.”

Ambassador Richard A. Ericson, Jr., ADST Oral History Interview, March 27, 1995.

“I am a great believer in the value of congressional visits.  We welcomed them even in the overwhelming numbers that came to Jerusalem.  Each visit provided an opportunity to present the situation as we saw it, and enter into a dialogue, sometimes profitable and always intense, with members of Congress and their staffs.  Our visitors were a captive audience and were interested in Palestinians, even those members of the House and Senate who favored Likud's policies.  By and large CODELS are serious trips undertaken for the primary purpose of learning. 

The CODELS I briefed rather endlessly came in the wake of the Camp David Accords.  I often invited Palestinians to the residence to meet with American legislators directly, and tried to get Palestinians themselves to present their views to the CODELS.  Occasionally, Palestinians refused to come in protest against the Congress, which they considered the instrument of their misfortunes through its aid appropriations to Israel.  I tried to expose visitors to a broad spectrum of Palestinian views, but because some of the most articulate among them would not come to my home, they threw away valuable opportunities to put their case to American legislators. ”

Ambassador Brandon H. Grove, Jr., ADST Oral History Interview, November 14, 1994.