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A change in foreign policy?

  • Published at 12:41 pm September 22nd, 2018
Donald Trump
Isolationist, nativist, protectionist REUTERS

US foreign policy has been in trouble under Trump 

In about 50 days, voters across the US will go the polls and elect the entire lower chamber of Congress (the House of Representatives), a third of the upper chamber (the Senate), and most of the state legislatures, governors, and thousands of other state and local offices.

Pundits generally agree that barring anything substantial developing, the chances are high for the Democrats to win back control of the House of Representatives while the Republicans keep the Senate; at the same time Democrats are expected to net two to five additional gubernatorial offices at the state level. 

With the full disclosure that I do not believe, at this time, that the House will switch to Democratic control, the question does arise how American engagement with the rest of the world may be affected were the consensus opinion of the pundits come to bear?

A House controlled by the Democratic Party is likely to have less direct impact on US policy towards the world than many detractors of the President Trump hope. A big part of the reason is structural: Constitutional principles and practice invests the president with a tremendous amount of discretion in conducting American relationships with the outside world; much of the “junior partner” authority that Congress has is dominated by the Senate, which has the power to ratify treaties and confirm ambassadorial appointments.

This leaves the House with a limited set of tools to frustrate the agenda of a president whose party controls the Senate, as has happened a few times in the last 30 years. A determined and cohesive House majority can use its revenue and appropriations powers -- shared with the Senate -- to demand some minor policy concessions but this approach has rarely seen much fruition since presidents can typically move allocated funds in the larger line items to subcategories to escape a straitjacket of funding issues for State Department or foreign aid operations. 

Such a move can be challenged by Congress in the courts, but American courts have been wary of second guessing the president on foreign policy issues or national security issues.

A House majority can, on its own accord, initiate a slew of investigations into the conduct of all aspects of foreign policy and hamstring administration officials and civil servants by making them appear repeatedly at regularly scheduled hearings, a tactic somewhat successfully employed by the Republican House majority during parts of the Obama presidency.  

While such hearings create a lot of proverbial heat, little of the proverbial light emanates from them beyond the probability of embarrassing disclosures and occasional malfeasance. Their biggest contribution is taking away a vital resource (time) from administration officials, and thus possibly slow down some parts of foreign policy execution machinery.  

Finally, on big trade deals like NAFTA, CAFTA, and TPP, the consent of both chambers of Congress is required by the president for major changes or new trade agreements. Given the hostility of president Trump and his base towards free trade, this is an area where a Democratic House majority can potentially have the biggest impact on American foreign policy.  

While many House Democrats line up with Trump on trade protectionism, a similar number of House Republicans are free traders, making for a wash and creating a real possibility of a free trade majority in the House that can resist President Trump’s desire to substantially rework NAFTA and other existing trade agreements.

Perhaps the biggest impact in Trump’s foreign policy, were a Democratic House majority to get elected in a few weeks, would be in the atmosphere, which would have changed from a powerless national Democratic Party of the last two years to newly energized opposition with control of one of the three national elected institutions and a legitimate claim to be an alternative to the Republican Party in the 2020 general elections. Those general elections will include the presidency itself and, thus, a shot at being the main architect of America’s global engagement.

Put it another way, a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in November does not substantively change foreign policy for the next two years, but it sets up the Democratic Party, once again, as a credible national force that can elect one its own to the White House in 2020, take the helm of American foreign policy, and return it to the largely internationalist bipartisan consensus that has been  under tremendous duress under the isolationist, nativist, and protectionist impulses of the Trump administration.

Esam Sohail. The author is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, US. He can be reached at [email protected]

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