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A controversy rocked President Ronald Reagan's administration in 1985. The Iran-Contra controversy of the 1980s was a political scandal involving the involvement of the National Security Council (NSC) in covert weapons programs in violation of congressional prohibitions. The acts were also in breach of the federal government's well-known public policy. The president's preoccupation with the growing influence of communism, particularly in the United States' own backyard of Central America, was at the heart of the scandal. The background to the incident goes back to 1979 "when the Sandinista liberation movement in Nicaragua has succeeded in defeating the authoritarianism of Anastasio Somoza Debayle". The action worried Reagan, and he was gradually persuaded that the existence of the enthusiastic left-wing administration in that nation would catalyze the upheaval in the entire region threatening the security of the United States. In an effort to proactively preclude this possibility, the president’s administration invested a significant amount of military assistance to several authorities in Central America that were impacted upon by Civil war as well as guerilla fighting. The military aid in the case of Nicaragua was aimed at undermining the government orchestrating the takeover of the Marxist-oriented Sandinista rule. The assistance was directed to militia groups, the “contras”, who engaged in fighting towards achieving this end. The funding was however not supported by the America Public, and the Congress came into action and passed a law to outlaw such actions. Reagan administration was undeterred and resulted in secret means to keep up the support.
The Iran-Contra affair exemplified the power balance problem that existed in the United States between the executive arm led by the president and the Congress. The separation of power between these two arms of government came under immense test. The battle ground was drawn August 1981 and December 1982. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official in August of 1981 had a meeting with Honduran Military officials, Argentine advisors as well as the FDN leadership and indicated he was in support of the contra operations. The meeting was followed by another high level one between the Casey, CIA director with the military Argentine Chief of staff. The meeting reached an agreement that Argentina was going to supervise the contracts with the United States’ role specified as that of the provision of funds and weapons intentioned at overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. The United States president, Reagan, came out clear in the late 1981 and in a show of support for the objective to overthrow the Nicaraguan administration, he authorized the country’s support to the rebels by providing them with “money, arms, and equipment via Argentina”. There was also the potential for the United States to “occasionally be directly involved in the supporting of the individual operation.” The massive support by the United States ensured the increase in the frequency of contra attacks as well as the numbers. By the end of 1982, contras operating outside Honduras were able to conduct attacks deep inside Nicaragua.
With the contra attacks going on in in the entire 1982, the press in the country started reporting on the help the labels were getting from their government. The congress started questioning the action of the executive, and the liberal member was quick to condemn Reagan’s policy, arguing that such actions lacked not only in their morals but probably were against the laws. Consequently, Congressman Edward Boland and the chairperson of the House’s intelligence committed presented an amendment “prohibiting the use of funds ‘for the purpose of’ overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a war between Nicaragua and Honduras.” The amendment successful became law in December 1982. However, due to an earlier secret prohibition of the utilization of finances in such a course between the executive and the Congress, Boland’s amendment did not get any practical implication on United States’ policy. Kagan pointed out a loophole in the law where provided the country administration expressed no intentions towards overthrowing of the Nicaraguan Government, it could still offer aid to the contras who had such an intention. The Congress in this instance, therefore, was not able to curtail the presidency and the executive, and thus the support continued.
After Boland’s 1st amendment, contra attacks in Nicaragua continued to intensify. The number of contras continued seeing the unprecedented increase. The United States involvement majorly through the CIA continued with supplies airlifted to contras, who continued with their “guerilla assaults on their targets”. Within the last months of 1983, the Central Intelligence Agency aided rebels in conducting air attacks on Sandino airport which encompassed the destruction of a number of fuel tanks. The CIA further helped in the damaging of Nicaragua ships through the use of mine between January and February 1984. The congresspersons from both side were concerned about the realization that Reagan administrative was enacting policies which were in violation of Boland Amendment. The Congress disapproval of the president and his administration’s actions led to political disagreements with the white house over contra financing. The congresspersons from both divides were especially angered by the revelation that the CIA had been responsible for the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors. According to them, and especially the Senate intelligence committee, the CIA operatives had operated outside the premises of the law by their failure to inform the committee. Congresspersons consequently passed a second Boland Amendment in October 1984 that stated:
“No appropriations or funds made available pursuant to this [authorization bill] to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which would have the effect of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement, or individual.”
For all its intents and purpose, the amendment was a seen as strategy of prohibiting the contras with the use of the United States government finances.
After the second Boland amendment, Reagan administration was forced to change some policies despite attempts at getting it repealed. The administration resulted in other ways of obtaining funds including getting donations from private citizens as these were not covered explicitly in the Boland’s amendment. Such parties were therefore not outlawed form providing finances to the contras. Another method that the president and his administration adopted was through the control of U.S. contra policy together with assistance from the NSC, which is “the President's principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials”. The option was considered viable because the NSV was not expressly mentioned in the amendment as it deals with policy making thus exempting it form “intelligence agency or entity” involved in “intelligence activities”.
The president’s action of acting without consulting the legislators did not auger well with them. It led to one of the most significant misunderstandings between President Reagan and any other arm of the government. The first way through which the Congress acted is through legislation. Both the first and second Boland’s amendment was meant to curtail the power that the president and executive possessed. The two legislation to some extent gave the Congress some control over the executive allowing it to stop the excesses of the president. However, the president and his executive were able to circumnavigate these two amendments to some extent. In the first amendment, the government found a loophole where it could still provide funding to contras as long it did not have an intention of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. When the Congress passes the second Boland amendment aimed prohibition of contras from using the United States funding, the government resulted in private citizens who were not forbidden to contribute by the established law.
The Congress felt aggrieved by the president acting without adequate consultation as expressed in the law and concerning the separation of powers between the arms of government. The supremacy battle started building up, and its climax came in 1987. Throughout the year, the Democrat-controlled Congress clashed on various grounds with President Reagan. As a show of protest against the president for undermining the house, the legislature handed Reagan several critical legislative setbacks. The congress, for instance, rejected the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court proceeded to enact two bills-one for the provision of clean water and the other for the financing of construction of highway- against the president’s veto. The division between the president and the Congress intensified to the extent that the congress allowed the bureaucracy to go unfunded for up to a day before adjournment as they protested the continued appropriation for the contras as well as the renewal of the broadcasting industry’s so-called Fairness Doctrine.
Unlike previous conflicts between the Statehouse and the Congress which were majorly political, then current conflict was viewed as more fundamental struggle between the constitutional roles of the Congress and the executive arm of government. Senate Majority leader Robert C. Byrd expressed that the conflict bordered on the debate over “…how the power of this government, derived from the people, should be exercised." The Iran-contra affairs were viewed as exposing the general disregard for Congress by the Reagan administration, and the embittered congress members were ready to assert their authority. The conviction that Reagan was trying to bypass them, therefore, led to the rejection of Bork nomination, pressing its interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic missile treaty as well as the frequent assertion of its independence on issues. According to Byrd, by such action, Congress succeeded in restoring the constitutional balance of power between the two arms of government.
As the Iran Contra conflict intensified between the Executive and the Congress, Reagan took some actions. At first, after the introduction of Boland’s amendment which became law, Reagan’s administration used a loophole in the law that enabled him to continue advancing his policies in Nicaragua. This led to the Congress bringing a further amendment that made it entirely impossible for the president to provide contras with more funding. The president was keen also to circumnavigate this amendment too, and through his operatives, he mobilized funds for the contras through private individuals who were not outlawed by the second Boland’s amendment. The executive had earlier unsuccessful attempted repeal the legislation.
Another action of the president during the conflict was to seek to fund from the Congress for the continued operation of the contras. The president in 1986 requested the Congress to approve $100 million in defense department fund that was meant to provide military in addition to nonlethal support to the contras who were keen in orchestrating the dethroning of the government of Nicaragua. The president’s proposal entailed $70 million towards while the remaining $30 million would be used for humanitarian aid including food and medical supplies. According to the Reagan proposal, the funds were to be transferred from the existing Pentagon budget and would be utilized in the financing of the contras for 18 months from March 31st. The Congress approved the aid package for the rebels, but in March 11, 1987, the house of representative voted to suspend further assistance to the contras until the time the president would be able to account for the money provided so far by the Congress. Reagan other actions included using state organs such as CIA and other officials to act for him which ensure the Congress could not be able to link him directly with covert affairs that were going on in Nicaragua.
Advantages Processed by Each Side and Effectiveness of their Actions
In the Iran Contra conflict as the two arms of government conflicted with each other, each possessed some advantages. For the president, the primary benefit lied in the control of the state resources including intelligence agencies. Through the use of intelligence agencies, the president was able to conduct covert affairs which only became known late through the media. The president was also able to act without putting his position in jeopardy as he made it hard for his role in the contra-affair to be known. The president acted through officers in the white house and thus, despite the participation in the affair against the Congress amendment, he could not be indicted. Reagan other advantage came in the form of loopholes in the constitution and the congress laws that enabled him to circumnavigate them. For instance, despite the War Powers Resolution of 1973 requiring that for a president to commit troops consultation with the Congress had to be done, there was a clause that allowed the president to bypass Congress in cases of severe and immediate threats. The president, therefore, was able to use this clause to avoid congress stating that the commander in chief possessed the obligation of ensuring national security in addition to protecting the interests of both the country and its citizens. The loophole in Boland’s first amendment further gave Reagan an advantage in that he was able to proceed with providing help to the contras as the law did not explicitly outlaw this. In the second Boland’s, private funding was not outlawed, and this ensured the president continued his efforts of securing the Nicaraguan government was overthrown.
Congress also has its share of advantage. First, the Congress was controlled by the Democrats who made it easy to oppose the policies of President Reagan from the republican political party. When it came to the passing of both the first and second Boland’s amendments, the process was eased by Democrats having control. The advantages of the congress were even enhanced by the ability of congresspersons from both divides to come together on important matters. For instance, on the realization of the executive undermining of first Boland’s amendment, congresspersons were all infuriated and came along to pass Boland’s second amendment. The congress was also advantaged by its oversight role over the executive. The oversight role of the parliament meant that the president’s essential bills had to pass through the legislature for approval. Congresspersons, therefore, use their oversight powers to put pressure on the executive to recognize the role of congress. In 1987, in the exercise of this purpose, the parliament rejected the presidential appointee for Supreme Court position, Robert H. Bork. Further, the congress pressed its interpretation of Anti-Ballistic missile treaty in addition to other frequent assertion of its independence on issues. According to Byrd, by such action, Congress succeeded in restoring the constitutional balance of power between the two arms of government.
Outcome and what would have led to Different Outcome
Several outcomes resulted from the dispute of Reagan and the legislative arm of the government. President Reagan provision of financial assistance to the rebels without the approval of the Congress led to public outcry and called for the accountability of the money that was being used in this course. Due to the public interest, the congress amended the law to prevent the further spending of the United States resources in trying to overthrow the Nicaragua government. When the first amendment was deemed not valid due to the executive’s continued operations, a second change was made that effectively ensured that no state resources could be channeled to war in Nicaragua. The Iran-contra affair intensified the supremacy battles between the two government arms. The Congress felt its powers had been usurped by President Reagan administration and were determined to win its forces back. The outcome of this was some government policies in being paralyzed in the Congress. For instance, the congress allowed bureaucracy to go unfunded for up to a day before adjournment. Further, president’s appointment for Supreme Court was vetoed and some bills passed against the wish of the president. Also, specifically to the Contra affair, the funding for the operation was cut by Congress and the president ordered to account for the funds that had been spent thus far.
For a different outcome to be achieved, the president ought to have followed the spirit and the letter of the law in his action and consult the Congress before sanctioning a move to support the contras. According to the United States Constitution, it is the Congress alone that can declare war, and hence the president seemed to usurp these powers. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 further emphasizes the need for the president to consult the Congress before he can commit troops. If the president had acted within the dictates of the law and asked the congress, the different outcome could have been achieved. If the parliament approved such an operation, adequate funding would have been obtained, and this would have prevented the government resulting in unconventional means such as private funding. Another possible outcome would have been the Congress refusing the executive from participating in the contra affairs which would have to save the country its financial resources.
Assessment of Actions Taken by the President and the Congress
From their practical experiences, framers were keen not to give any branch of the government too many powers over the others. Checks and balances were provided for all the arms of government. The checks and balances provided for in the constitutions are not sufficient, but this is by design to ensure the different arms are accountable to one another. In this case, the action of President Reagan does not demonstrate this constitutional principle as he attempts to act alone without acknowledgment of the role of Congress. The three arms of government need to act in coordination concerning each other's boundaries.
The Congress was within its right to use various measures to make the Executive acknowledge its role. The Congress can frustrate the executive’s agenda in the house to push for accountability of the executive. However, such action needs to consider public interests. For instance, blocking the budget for necessities to the United States’ population would not be morally wrong. In this case, the measures used by the Congress were adequate to reclaim its independence and constitutional role.
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Busby, Robert. Reagan and the Iran-contra affair: The politics of presidential recovery. Springer, 2016.
David, Charles Philippe, Nancy Ann Carrol, and Zachary A. Selden. Foreign Policy Failure in the White House: Reappraising the fall of the Shah and the Iran-Contra affair. Univ Pr of Amer, 1993.
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