Throughout the 1960s, the power of the Armed Services Committee expanded dramatically--partly because of the prestige of its chair, Richard Russell; partly because of the Vietnam War; partly because, for the first time, it started making authorizations on the whole Defense budget rather than just a small part. Yet Foreign Relations also retained considerable power--partly because of the prestige of its chair, J. William Fulbright, and a few key members, such as Stuart Symington; partly because of the committee's role in opposing the Vietnam War and then Cold War foreign policy in general.
The tipping point in the struggle between the two committees probably came with the SALT II hearings, where a treaty strongly supported by the FRC was cut to shreds by Scoop Jackson and his allies on the Armed Services Committee. Then, in 1980, FRC chairman Frank Church was defeated, and the committee suffered through a decade-plus of weak leadership--first under Republican Chuck Percy, then under Democrat Claiborne Pell. By the end of the 1990s, FRC had been eclipsed in influence not only by the Armed Services Committee but also by the Intelligence Committee. Virtually the only time it gets noticed any more is in high-profile confirmation hearings such as what we witnessed over the past two days.
Like its early Cold War predecessor, the current Foreign Relations Committee is committed to bipartisanship (or at least the closest thing to bipartisanship in the current Congress): its chair is the widely respected Dick Lugar; its GOP membership includes mavericks such as Chuck Hagel and Lincoln Chafee as well as comparative moderates such as Norm Coleman, George Voinovich, and Lisa Murkowski. This ideological coloration perhaps explains the rather testy confirmation hearing that Rice experienced.
The last national security advisor elevated to Secretary of State was Henry Kissinger, who attracted seven negative votes on confirmation. Based on her committee performance, Rice probably deserves to have a higher total of senators vote against her, though I doubt that will happen. (The transcript of yesterday's hearing is here; that of today is here.) She tended to confine herself to vague remarks--troubling vagueness at times, as Fred Kaplan of Slateobserved--with the sole exception of her sharp criticism of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, criticism that seems to me well deserved.
As Barack Obama noted in his comments at this morning's hearings, on critical national security issues, Rice essentially was asking the committee to look forward and trust her to make wise foreign policy decisions, even as she steadfastly denied--especially in heated exchanges with Joe Biden and Barbara Boxer--that any of the foreign policy decisions made over the previous four years were unwise. But the only way the Senate should trust the administration to make wise foreign policy decisions in the future is to examine the merits of its past foreign policy decisions: in this respect, Rice wants it both ways, not having to spell out the implications of future decisions while avoiding any discussion of past controversial ones, on the grounds that doing so would be dwelling in the past and not"looking forward." Perhaps her attitude will help reinvigorate a long-slumbering FRC, and produce some effective oversight of the administration's foreign policy over the next four years.