US Foreign Policy in the 116th Congress

Written by: Daniel Ramallo

In an election dominated by healthcare, immigration, and everything President Trump, the foreign policy debate was characteristically quiet, despite potentially large policy implications stemming from the results of November 6th. 

Despite what appeared to be a repudiation of Trump’s nationalism on election night, the President’s foreign policy agenda is safer than one might expect. While the large Democratic gains provide the newly elected officials the opportunity to shake up the current policy direction, the House is greatly limited in its ability to intervene in foreign affairs with most legislative teeth residing with from the Senate. Election results in the House and Senate will not translate into the wave of opposition necessary to overhaul Trump’s foreign policy completely, but this does not mean Democrats will have no effect.

The “blue wave” which flipped the House of Representatives will resist Trump’s foreign policy agenda as best they can. Some of the major shifts with the change in lawmakers consist of a tougher stance against Russia, stronger support for refugees, less staunch loyalty to Israel, and an unclear message on trade from both parties.

The new majority will also provide the Democratic Party oversight capabilities that it did not have in Trump’s first two years, such as the power to issue subpoenas and articles of impeachment. Informally, the Democrats will possess the power of “public theatre”, the ability to highlight desired issues and frame the debate for the public. Notably, the Democrats will be able to assist Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and collusion with the White House. But after Trump forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ungracefully resign the day after the midterm elections, the Democrats will have to climb an uphill battle dealing with the new Trump loyalist pick, Matt Whitaker, who is expected to further impede the Mueller investigation. As evidenced by the backlash against the INF Treaty withdrawal, the more Trump fights back against Mueller, the tougher the Democrats’ stance will be against pro-Russia or Russian-appeasement policies.

Asylum-seekers received a victory from Tuesday’s elections as the Democrat-controlled House serves as a roadblock to the most hardline anti-refugee President in recent memory. Trump’s highly controversial “Muslim Ban” will take a major blow. Nearly all Democrats are united against the executive order and some of Trump’s key supporters of the ban, including Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Dave Trott (R-Mich.), left Congress in 2018. Many re-elected Republicans have also stated opposition to the ban, so garnering support for similar measures in the future will prove difficult for Trump. 

Foreign policy in the Middle East has less of a partisan divide. Still, certain policy debates within the Middle East sphere are less bipolar than others. The House will most likely get along with the President on foreign intervention, as both Democrats and Trump carry an anti-Bush sentiment on war in the Middle East. With this, we can expect the Yemen Civil War strategy to remain relatively stagnant these next two years. Regarding Israel and Iran, Trump’s policy goals are expected to face greater partisan obstacles in the House. Republicans consider Israel to be “America’s closest ally”, essentially a foreign policy litmus test for conservatives, while Democrats are more cautious in expressing full support for Israel. The traditional boundaries of the Israel-Palestine debate might be also pushed with the first two Muslim-American Congresswomen elected, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, eager to fend for Palestine, an unprecedented position in US politics. This partisan divide exists conversely for Iran, in which the ideological dichotomy of hawks and doves is most visible along party lines. 

The Democratic and the Republican Party currently both struggle with an identity crisis on trade, making it the least predictable policy area heading into 2019. Trade, which was elevated onto the forefront of public discourse over the past couple of years, has experienced a quasi party-realignment due to Trump’s party-line break on the issue. Republicans are adamantly pro-growth and anti-taxes which typically involves supporting free trade, yet its new figurehead is a trade critic. Democrats are largely pro-labor (thus anti-free trade), but also wish to oppose Donald Trump politically. This has led to some internal divides of both democratic and republicans, voters and politicians alike, with now Republicans and Democrats about equally for free trade.

The prospects for Trump’s foreign policy agenda are stronger than they appear on the surface, however, as many of the Republicans who distanced themselves from Trump will not serve in 2019. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) decided not seek reelection due to family reasons, but it is generally assumed that his disagreements with the direction of the Republican Party contributed to his decision. Some like Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), Mia Love (R-UT), and Steve Knight (R-CA) lost reelection bids partly due to the challenge of being an Anti-Trump Republican.

While the House turnover hold major implications, the changes in the Senate cannot be ignored. In the most important chamber for foreign policy, the Senate Republicans increased the size of their caucus by one. Furthermore, like the House, the Republican representation in the Senate has become more pro-Trump as Senators such as the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who both forwent reelection, will no longer serve as a check on the president. This surely comes as a huge sigh of relief for President Trump as many of his foreign policy initiatives can remain undisrupted in the Senate, specifically treaty ratifications and nominations. 

It must be noted that the new crop of Democrats contains few of the progressives who captured the media’s attention throughout the election cycle. Rather, the most successful Democratic challengers were moderates, comprising most of the 40 seats that the Democrats won. The likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who made foreign policy a low priority in her campaign, will not be the face of the Democratic majority in 2019, a positive for those who wish to see a serious conversation on foreign policy issues in Washington. In fact, some of the incoming moderate Democrats congressmen, notably Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), hold prestigious foreign policy experience at Human Rights Watch and the State Department that speculate a heavier focus on foreign policy decisions.

America’s future foreign policy challenges will be impactful in the lead up to 2020, certainly more than this past election cycle indicated. With that being said, the Democratically-controlled House wields minimal authority over the president’s foreign policy actions, leaving them to initiate the greatest policy changes through mobilizing the public using its informal powers.