Legislative strategy and the politics of passing controversial foreign economic legislation

Date of Completion

January 1998


Political Science, General|Political Science, International Law and Relations




Many broad theories have sought to explain the development and maintenance of the internationalist foreign economic policy of the United States since the end of the second world war. These theories emphasize partisan, ideological, constituent, economic and international pressures on policy makers. They give insufficient attention, however, to the particular political strategies employed by the president in policy making. It is true that these macro-theories explain a large part of the policy-making process, but they often ignore the fact that many of the major policy decisions that have shaped American foreign economic policy would not have been passed by Congress if not for the creative politicking of the president and his top advisors.^ This dissertation examines five seminal cases of foreign economic policy making in which the president was able to snatch a legislative victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat. Those cases are the British Loan of 1946; the Marshall Plan (European Recovery Plan or ERP) of 1948; the Trade Expansion Act (TEA) of 1962; the U.S. sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia in 1981; and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico in 1993. In each of these cases, the political climate of the time did not favor the passage of the legislation, partly because each case represents some substantial degree of change in the prevailing government policy of the time. In general, this dissertation investigates the reasons why Congress occasionally passes the president's legislation when, for the majority of legislators, the politically prudent action would be to vote against the proposed legislation. In particular, this dissertation examines the relative importance of legislative strategy as a crucial independent variable in determining the success of controversial foreign economic policy initiatives. This study argues that the outcome of these controversial, closely-contested legislative decisions was influenced by the president's legislative strategy, which involved the shaping of the terms of debate and/or the use of side payments to satisfy the interests of parochial-minded legislators. ^