The New Congress and U.S. Foreign Policy

Feb 5, 2019

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

One of the questions I have been following is how the new Congress will approach questions of U.S. foreign policy. With the Democrats in control of the lower chamber, but Republicans retaining their majority in the Senate, it provides for divided oversight and assessment. Moreover, while the broad tent of the Democratic Party has found unity and purpose in opposition to President Donald Trump, it does not mean that major differences within the Democratic coalition—political as well as generational—have been bridged. Republicans are also struggling between adherence to a pre-2016 approach to world affairs and the demand for loyalty to the current incumbent in the White House.

In December, I made some predictions as to where Congress might go. Now that the new Congress has been seated, and the government shutdown crisis (at least for now) averted, how are things shaping up?

Nahal Toosi and Marianne Levine of Politico make the following observations:

Even without the Democrats in charge of the House, Trump was facing increasing pushback from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress on foreign policy. And now, a Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee—with Engel leading the panel in a more investigative direction—means Trump will face an even more aggressive check on his powers. In Engel's opinion, Congress has for decades ceded too much power on foreign policy to the executive branch. …

Over at the House committee, some new additions promise increased internal debate among Democrats. New faces include Rep. Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of State for human rights, democracy and labor under the Obama administration; Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer and counter-terrorism expert; and Ilhan Omar, who made history last year by becoming one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Omar's left-leaning views may contrast the most with Engel's stances. …

What happens in the Senate? Are the predictions about Senator Jim Risch and his more transactional approach to foreign policy going to create issues? Perhaps. They note, "Over in the Senate, the Republican-led Foreign Relations Committee is expected to be a more subdued body." Yet Risch has three prominent Republicans within his committee—all former presidential primary or general candidates—who have no compunction about overshadowing the chair.

All of this suggests that debate within Congress about the nature, role and extent of U.S. engagement will be just as heated and sharp as the clash between Capitol Hill and the White House.

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<a href="">Protest against U.S. military attacks on Syria, April 2017</a>. CREDIT: Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons

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