By Stephen Howard & Nicholas Hayen
After months of campaigning, debates, and obnoxious political advertisements, the results of the 2018 midterm elections are finally in. To almost nobody’s surprise, the Democratic party picked up the majority of seats in the House of Representatives. With the Republican party maintaining (and actually increasing) its control of the Senate, this means that Congress will be divided between opposing parties and the Legislative and Executive branches are about to become much more confrontational. In addition, several states elected governors of the Democratic party, setting up the possibility for confrontation on the state versus federal level, But what does all this mean for the next two years of American foreign policy? Our latest article will examine just that.
Over the centuries, substantial power has been invested in the office of the presidency, often at the expense of Congress. By Constitutional design, Foreign policy is one area in particular where the president and the Executive Branch wield tremendous power. While Congress does maintain critical controls such as the ability to declare war and levy tariffs, these powers seem to be slowly handed over to the president (like with the 2001 and 2003 AMUFs which allow US military action against Al Qaeda and “associated forces”). In addition, Democratic gains in foreign policy influence are still more limited than they would be if the Democratic party had won control of the Senate. The Senate holds “Advise and Consent” power over Cabinet and Ambassador positions, meaning the Democrats missed an opportunity to block unfriendly nominations to these critical posts. There are also important Senate committees such as the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees that Republicans still control and can still work to support presidential foreign policies.
Since the majority of foreign policy power lies with either the Senate or the presidency, there are three main ways in which the House could steer America’s international relations. The first, and probably least impactful, would be public gestures of support for (or nonbinding motions against) specific policies. For instance, the House could pass a resolution that simply states its disapproval towards moving the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Or, they could invite foreign officials who favor Democratic policies to speak or provide testimony to the House. This would be similar to the move by Congress last year to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress.
But non binding measures and political grandstanding can only go so far. One area where the House actually has substantial power is in the power of the purse. Since all appropriations bills (those involving government budgets and spending) must begin in the House, the Democrats now have the coveted power to withhold key government funding measures in exchange for policy concessions. The obvious example here is the constant drama which has played out over the past eight years regarding the raising of the federal debt ceiling. Recall that Republicans in the House used the threat of a government shutdown several times to attempt to derail policies like the Affordable Care Act. Now, Democrats could threaten to shut down the government if the president does something like propose the removal of all American troops from the Korean Peninsula. Or an opposition party could help derail the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran by holding up other critical legislation. But the efficacy of this tactic could be limited by the fact that Republicans did not succeed during their attempts, and the president has made it clear he has no issues with shutting down the government to get what he wants.
Threatening to shut down the government certainly has a fair share of drawbacks and can make the Democrats look too obstructionist. The one big area where Democrats can use their newfound powers while still appearing to get something done is with the power of congressional investigation and the subpoena power. This is almost certain to take the form of continuing and expanding the Russia investigation (especially in light of the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions whose replacement will now oversee the Mueller investigation). This is bound to happen regardless of the foreign policy positions the president takes, but further investigations could be threatened or started as a means to derail foreign policy initiatives. One example would be to compel intelligence officials or other government operatives to testify about the increasingly dire war in Yemen as a means to disrupt Trump’s plans for closer U.S.-Saudi relations. All of this is because the House also has similar committees in the areas of foreign policy and intelligence just like the Senate. So while the House committees cannot block nominations and appointments, it can certainly make the process a lot more difficult or controversial by threatening investigations or compelling testimony.
Likely the main impact of the election of a Democratic House, and the subsequent proliferation of investigations into the alleged dealings of President Trump, will be strategic trade offs made by the President to deal with having to spend political capital fending off ever more dangerous and powerful attacks. President Trump has already shown a tendency to become distracted by perceived threats to his power, and the number his presidency will have to deal with for the next two years threatens to suffocate any initiative not tied to immediate domestic gratification.
This doesn’t mean that the President will completely shrug off foreign affairs, but when an issue comes to the forefront he is likely to be more bombastic to draw off attention from whatever domestic crisis might be happening at the time. The flip side of that coin is that while the bombast will be ever more extreme, he will be less willing to follow through on that bombast than ever - the attention span that a crisis atmosphere creates simply won’t allow him to do so. This isn’t a unique problem for the Trump Administration, any administration faced with multiple and ever increasing domestic challenges to it will find it hard to focus on foreign affairs (think about the final two years of the Clinton Presidency) - but in President Trump's case personality politics might exacerbate this issue.
Further, the opportunity cost of any action the President wishes to take has increased exponentially with the election of the Democratic House. If we recall Neustadt, all US Presidents have limited political capital to expend on any given issue, and President Trump and the Republican Party have had a significant problem converting any such power into actual gains. Take the administration's first two years where, even given a Republican House and Senate, very little progress was made on Republican cornerstones of ACA repeal or immigration. Now with a few investigations seeming to reach their crescendo and more likely to come forward, the Trump Administration will be loathe to spend political capital on issues in the foreign sphere which will gain his presidency little, if anything. Instead, President Trump will likely focus on easy short term wins abroad, such as the whirlwind and ill fated diplomatic liaison with Kim Jong Un, and avoid long term or intractable issues which require substantial political capital for a reward which may not be realized in his presidency.
A particular area in which the Trump Administration will shy away from, regardless of what people may see in House of Cards, are large scale military actions that require large amounts of political capital. Instead of being the “Rally round the flag” issue many seem to believe they are, getting bogged down in foreign conflicts is easily the best way to lose the public completely. Not included in this are attacks which can be termed “loud, spectacular, and altogether pointless”. The 2017 Trump Administration decision to attack a remote and sparsely inhabited Syrian Airbase, and the 2018 decision to attack suspected deserted chemical storehouses already shows a affinity for such action. The latitude for these type of attacks is limited, though, to states which have absolutely no way to respond against the US or its allies - not a country like Iran. Further, if the attacks hit absolutely nothing (like what happened in 1998 when the Clinton Administration fired Tomahawk missiles at suspected Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan) the United States, not to mention the current administration, will look foolish and impotent.
This problem of the lack of presidential political capital will have the effect of freezing the American foreign position in the world. Without long term directives from the President, the foreign policy of the United States will revert more to career officials at the State Department, Treasury Department, and to some extent the CIA, doing their day to day work. These departments probably won’t take much strategic initiative, but will instead tread water where they were left. Thus American Foreign policy, conservative (as in cautious) in the best of times, will become even more so for the next two years.
Lastly, any president worth their salt facing a hostile Congress will attempt to paint the Congress (fairly or unfairly) as being obstructionist. This can happen because the Presidency has overwhelming powers to frame the lack of legislative progress as the fault of the opposition party in congress, especially when there are two chambers are split. Couple this with the aforementioned foreign policy powers of the Senate and Presidency, and President Trump is in a unique position to give the impression that the Republican Senate is working hard on their jobs (via ambassador appointments and treaty making), but the Democratic House (focused only on domestic legislation) will appear perfectly incompetent. To be sure, the Trump Administration has shown very little interest in appointing key foreign policy positions abroad so far, but now that the domestic payoff is there, the US might select ambassadors to South Korea or other strategic locations which have yet to receive them.
Now, no one can truly predict the future. Circumstances change, unrealized crises can ferment, and mercurial public opinion can sway, each leading to a change in how the US interacts with the world. Additionally, landscape changing events with effects impossible to predict are still in the offering for the next two years, namely the revelations of the Mueller investigation and where it comes down, the possible replacement of General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, and the culmination of the ongoing trade war between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The trends we lay out in this article, though, are likely to inform each coming change to some degree, and hopefully will provide a little clarity for the actions taken during that time.
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