On November 6, 2018, U.S. voters turned out in historic numbers and returned control of the House of Representatives to the Democratic Party for the first time since 2010. When the new Congress is sworn in on January 3, 2019, President Trump will, for the first time, be confronted with an enabled political opposition with powerful tools. The Democratic House will be torn between a number of competing but intensely compelling priorities. They will want to influence current policy decisions. They will want to protect their own new majority, with members from middle ground districts -- at least 29 that voted for Trump in 2016 and 27 that voted for Romney in 2012 out of an expected total majority of 234. And, of course, they will want to lay the groundwork for a successful presidential campaign to unseat Trump in 2020. Similarly, Trump will have various priorities, including (presumably) advancing a policy agenda, protecting his ability to work through the Senate, limiting investigations into his Administration, his family, and himself, and using the Democratic majority as foil for his reelection campaign. This paper reviews the tools House Democrats and the Trump Administration will use to pursue these aims as they relate to foreign affairs and national security.
The power of the purse
One of the Congress’ core functions in the U.S. Constitution is to appropriate funds for the functions of the Federal Government. This is the area, though, where the change in House majority may give the Democrats the fewest realistic opportunities. Because of the fractious nature of the Republican caucus in recent years, the Republican leadership has never been confident in their ability to pass spending bills without substantial Democratic support. Too many “Tea Party” or “Freedom Caucus” Republican members have been unwilling to accept compromise outcomes pulling them off their ideological starting points on issues like defense spending, funding for Obamacare and other entitlement programs, and appropriations related to immigration and enforcement, including President Trump’s promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. As a result, Democrats have been relatively successful in protecting core appropriations interests from the minority.
It is likely the President who sees the most improved tactical opportunities with the flip of the House. For the first two budget cycles of his Presidency, he has been unable to deliver on campaign promises including funding the wall and defunding Obamacare despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. He has often been happy to disparage members and even other leaders of his own party and even triggered a very brief and partial government shutdown in 2018, but the stark fact of Republican majorities has limited his ability to pass blame for unfulfilled promises. With Democrats now in control of the House, he may see advantages in taking hard line positions and risking more severe shutdowns, banking on conventional wisdom that the legislative party fares worse in the politics of failed budget negotiations.
President Trump may also have openings to highlight divisions within the Democratic majority on national security issues. While some Democrats look for cuts to defense budgets, others will not want to be seen as weak on defense or unsupportive of the military. In a different vein, while there has historically been broad bipartisan support for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Democrats have been critical of the reckless way Trump did it. Trump may be able to use proposals for funding Embassy construction to claim a bipartisan mantle for the move.
Democrats will likely look to do three things to address the conundrum of having new apparent responsibility with little new real power on budgetary issues. First, they will focus on their most important priorities. Most of these will be domestic, related to protecting entitlement spending. The priorities most closely related to foreign affairs will involve immigration, and especially limiting funds available for President Trump to pursue policies the Democrats see as anathema to American values, such as family separations at the border and the border wall.
Second, they will play defense against Republican charges of extremism and intransigence, carefully building a public case that their desired budget outcomes better reflect public desires than Trump’s unpopular priorities, like defunding Obamacare. At the same time, they will want to document their willingness to compromise on less existential issues in order to deflect blame for failed budget bills, government shutdowns, and other dramas voters tend to find distasteful.
Finally, they will look for chances to use their control of the budget drafting process to score smaller wins. For example, the budget passed in September 2018 includes $65 million for a new low-yield nuclear weapons system despised by most progressive experts. Democrats may try to defund this kind of program in a broader campaign to highlight public concerns about President Trump’s trustworthiness in managing his nuclear weapons authorities. Similarly, the House is likely to try to use budgetary and oversight powers to press the Administration to spend appropriations the Administration does not want, like fully staffing the State Department and providing traditional levels of support for international organizations.
House Democrats also gain relatively little in terms of advancing a legislative agenda. Some foreign affairs legislation may gain sufficient bipartisan support in the Senate to force President Trump’s signature, but this was already the case with sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and the balance of power in the U.S. does not shift dramatically with a flip in control of one chamber. Democrats can propose legislation to lay out an agenda in contrast to the President’s, and the President and Republicans can propose legislation to discomfit the Democrats – for example, by forcing Democrats to choose between endorsing Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal or being labeled “soft on Iran.” Likely Speaker Pelosi in the House and Majority leader McConnell in the Senate are both remarkable legislative and political tacticians, and they will use every opportunity to corner the others’ party.
The Trump Administration has experienced a remarkably low level of Congressional oversight on foreign affairs. His senior officials have testified less often and provided fewer classified briefings to Congress than typical. Members and staff from both parties have expressed shock and frustration at the limited information the Administration provided or that the majority demanded before or after withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, before or after the Singapore summit with Kim, before or after the Helsinki summit with Putin, before or after imposing sanctions on Russian aluminum giant Rusal, with potentially terrible consequences for European economies, before or after any number of aggressive trade steps toward China – the list is virtually as long as the list of Trump policy initiatives. This is not simply a matter of partisan control of government. Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton all had periods of unified party control, and all were subject to much closer Congressional scrutiny on at least some issues.
It is important not to lose sight of how odd this is. President Trump is the first person in living memory to assume the office with no governmental experience. He ran as an outsider in the Republican party, attacking its leadership, which spent much of the 2016 trying to manage an uncomfortable distance from their nominee. His fist national security advisor was fired after 24 days for lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian Government. All political and governance logic would have suggested that Republicans in Congress would closely probe national security decision making.
There are multiple explanations for the surprisingly hands off approach of the Republican majority on national security issues. Congressional Republicans were surprised by President Trump’s primary and general election wins. His foreign policy instincts seem distant from the hawkish views that dominate most Republican national security conversations. Many representatives reacted to this new data about the mood within their party electorate by embracing the new President. Very slow staffing of national security positions meant that many of the mid-level officials who would generally be responsible for interacting with Congress were simply not in place. Similarly, chaotic inter-agency decision making meant that such officials who were in place were often not well informed spokespersons. Finally, waves of new Republican members meant that not many in leadership positions had senior experience in Congress prior to 2006, the last time Republicans controlled both the legislative and executive branches and so had less of a template for managing both loyalty to party and institution.
The Democratic Congress will certainly provide greater scrutiny. It will be uncomfortable for Trump officials, many new to senior government service. If past is precedent, it may reveal fissures between Republicans in Congress, who may find the Administration less persuasive in person. Fairly quickly, this is likely to affect the type of foreign policy advice the President gets from Government officials, who will be more closely attuned to the need to defend decisions to difficult questions from a loyal opposition. The President will either be guided by this changing advice or will refuse it and take a more confrontational approach, but this will make his well-reported problems managing the bureaucracy more severe.
The Senate, not the House confirms presidential appointees to Executive Branch roles. The Republicans slightly expanded their majority in the Senate, and some Trump-skeptic Republican senators retired. Trump never faced much opposition to his appointments and now will face less, but the Democrats controlling the House will be in a position to question officials once they are in office.
On the other hand, stronger Congressional oversight could strengthen Trump Administration policy execution. As a former State Department official, I might not have relished sharp briefing sessions and hearings, but I must acknowledge that they always identified weak points in our thinking and planning that might otherwise have been discovered still more uncomfortably in foreign negotiations.
I draw a distinction between oversight, which is a normal part of the policy process, and investigation, which uses law enforcement tools like subpoenas to examine possible criminal or other wrongdoing. Historically, Congressional committees needed some bipartisan engagement to use their full investigative powers, but the Republican majority under President Obama gave Committee Chairman the authority to issue subpoenas without minority support. Democrats are certain to retain that expanded authority for the majority, and to use it. It is conventional wisdom that Republicans under Presidents Clinton and Obama overreached in their investigations and suffered politically as a result, so political advisors are telling Democrats to be cautious. It is essential that investigations be careful, well-grounded, and not rushed or exaggerated, but the lessons can be exaggerated. Republican overreach was largely a problem under Obama because of the paucity of their findings. If the Trump Administration has engaged in serious wrongdoing and is exposed by Congressional investigation, there is no reason to assume that the political fallout will be the same.
Much of the new Congress’ investigatory focus is likely to address foreign policy issues. There are highly publicized issues like potential Trump campaign “collusion” with Russia, Trump and Trump family financial ties with Saudi Arabia, and Chinese licenses and other concessions granted to Trump family companies since the election. There are also less well known issues, like reports of ideological purges and racial bias at the State Department. Investigations into all of these issues will have both domestic and international political consequences.
One worth noting is that countries that have focused on influencing Trump Administration decision making – including through financial measures like bookings at Trump Hotels, whether or not these gestures were solicited or reciprocated by the Administration – will be reminded of the complexity of U.S. party politics and institutional checks and balances.
The Executive Branch represents the U.S. However, as the outpouring of diplomatic grief over Senator John McCain’s death demonstrates, members of Congress can also establish important, long-term international relationships. These often persist regardless of the part in power, but they are more meaningful in the majority. With control of the House, Democrats will have a stronger position to establish and maintain relationships abroad. These are likely to be especially important with traditional Allies and partners who believe that the Trump Administration is acting against their interests.
Presenting an alternative
The opposition party always has a responsibility to present an alternative vision of government policy, not just to criticize. Both the expectations and tools for doing so are stronger, though, with control of one chamber of Congress. Democrats will present legislation and budgets (even if they fail), question officials, interact with foreign Governments – in doing so, they will outline an alternative platform. The Trump Administration’s general foreign policy incoherence invites such an alternative, but Democrats will need to work through internal differences between human rights interventionists, traditional isolationists, and a political pull to attack Trump policies “from the right” as being insufficiently assertive of U.S. interests abroad.
The new majority is fortunate to have both experienced Congressional hands and a crop of new members with substantial national security background, including as military veterans and as senior officials under Presidents Obama and Clinton. There is both interest in laying out a foreign policy agenda and experience crafting strategies and turning them into political messages.