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Francis O. Wilcox: Chief of Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1947-1955)


“If the executive and legislative branches don't work together to a certain extent, the Constitution is not going to function properly.”

Francis Wilcox discusses the need for better communication between the legislative and executive branches in the area of foreign policy.

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WILCOX: I think what we need is a greater willingness on both sides—legislative and executive branches—to work together in the common cause. And I think, on the part of Congress, it requires a willingness to modernize its machinery. Here you are with the War Powers Act, demanding a greater part in foreign policy, yet they have not exhibited any real willingness to modernize or streamline their machinery so they can play an effective role. Dean Rusk used to say to me: "I don't know who to consult on Capitol Hill. Where do I go to get a decision?" Unless a treaty or a resolution or a nomination is before the Senate, it's awfully hard to find out what the Senate thinks about a foreign policy question. They need to streamline their committee system. They need to make somebody up there responsible for consultation.

Maybe it's something like Congressman [Clement] Zablocki suggested, a national security committee of the House and Senate, that would be made up of some twenty leaders and would be a contact point with the executive branch. I have suggested that it might be done by the creation of a joint National Security Council, with some of the leaders being invited to meetings of the National Security Council to have an exchange of views with the president and his cabinet ministers, maybe every four or five or six weeks, to talk about foreign policy problems that are emerging on the horizon, not just a crisis situation but foreign policy questions that are coming into the—coming on the horizon. I guess that’s as good as I can put it. This would make for better relationships between the two. They'd be in a better position to advise the president. They'd be in a better position to take part in debate on the Senate floor and the House floor. They'd be in a better position to function effectively in the committees. And you’d have a greater willingness, hopefully on both sides, to work together.

If a new president were to embark upon that course, he could do it. He could do it formally by increasing the size of the National Security Council and inviting the members to come. He could do it informally by having them come from time to time. If it didn't work, he could stop it. But I think this does not violate the concept of separation of powers, in my judgment. If the executive and legislative branches don't work together to a certain extent, the Constitution is not going to function. It's true that it provides for an adversary relationship. Sure, the president is commander-in-chief of the Army and the Navy, and the Congress is the organ of our government to declare war. Well, you have to compromise, then, a little bit on, when the president is going to use the armed forces, and where, and under what circumstances.

And you have to have some role for the Congress to play, given the changing conditions that prevail in the world. The War Powers Act is only one aspect of it. But when you look at the sale of wheat to the Soviet Union, or you look at the quadrupling of oil prices that caused people to line up at the gas tanks in this country, or you look at the sale of AWACS planes, or you look at the Panama Canal treaty and these other things, some of these things are of very considerable interest to the people of the country and they've got to be of interest to Congress, whether Congress wants to be interested or not. Therefore, I maintain that we have to find some way to make this relationship work—admitting that Congress has to play a more important role, and admitting that the president is the principal person in charge of our foreign policy-to find some way to bring these branches together a little better than they have been in the last ten years.