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Congress, Foreign Policy, and the Democratic Party

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
November 3, 2006

Introduction

In the final days before the U.S. midterm elections, opinion surveys showed Democrats were likely to win the fifteen seats needed to regain the majority in the House of Representatives. Polls suggest they are less likely to win the six seats needed to recapture the Senate. Experts say winning control of one or both houses of Congress would give Democrats a more resonant voice in foreign policy matters and a direct impact on a number of issues, such as international trade and immigration reform. But Democrats are divided on policy toward the war in Iraq, and major foreign policy initiatives are still dominated by the executive branch.

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How much influence does Congress have on foreign policy?

The majority party in both houses holds the chairmanships of committees and subcommittees, giving its officials power to hold oversight investigations of the executive branch, schedule hearings, and call witnesses. In the case of the House, two of the most important functions related to foreign policy are budgetary authority and the right to decide on trade deals. Those who occupy top-level positions, like the speaker and majority leader, can also use their bully pulpit to hold forth on major international developments. Oversight of the executive branch has diminished in recent years under Republican control of Congress and the White House, write Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann in the latest Foreign Affairs. This role, they say, has the potential to give Congress a critical voice in foreign policy issues. They cite the Church committee investigations of intelligence failures and illegal surveillance in the 1970s; the congressional committees that examined the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s; and the review of military operations in Kosovo in the 1990s.

Do congressional Democrats have a cohesive foreign policy outlook?

The minority leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who would most likely become Speaker of the House in a November 7 power shift, cites the new plan outlined by the party titled “New Direction for Real Security” as an example of the Democrats’ tough, prudent approach on national security issues. But on the leading foreign policy issue—the war in Iraq—Democrats have given mixed signals and presented multiple strategies for resolving it. James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, says there are clear signs the Democrats would seek to exercise the congressional oversight function more vigorously. “It’s going to be the oversight Congress but it will also be the power-of-the-purse Congress. They are going to use the appropriations process and the supplementals [spending bills used primarily to support defense department needs in Iraq and Afghanistan] to try to redirect our policy toward Iraq.”

How important is the Speaker of the House role in foreign affairs?

In such a prominent post, Pelosi would have a voice on major issues like Iraq or trade, but experts say her most immediate influence would be shaping committee leadership posts. “Foreign policy has not been her bailiwick,” says Nancy R. Roman, vice president and director of CFR’s Washington program, “Her role, if she handles the speakership like minority leader, will be trying to build consensus among chairmen on issues.” Thurber says since the departure of Majority Leader Tom Delay, the House of Representatives has already begun to shift from what was a highly centralized power structure. “I see Pelosi now bringing the chairs in, talking to them, and I see them saluting and saying, ‘Yes, we’ll do that,’” Thurber says. “But she [is not expected to] have a lot of power other than selection of chairs.”

Who would take over chairmanship of major foreign policy committees?

Pelosi has said she will appoint chairmen of key committees based on seniority. With that in mind, here is a look at several key House committees and their prospective chairs:

  • International Relations. Tom Lantos of California. Lantos and the current chair, Henry Hyde (R-IL), shared common positions on Israel and the Middle East and a general desire for UN reform. Lantos is expected to be more critical of U.S. policy on Iraq and could be a voice for changing course. He told the Wall Street Journal that in the event he assumed the chairmanship he would use the post to back policies that would be “dramatically more multilateral and dramatically more respectful of other countries’ views.”
  • Intelligence. Experts say the chairmanship of this committee would pose one of the top challenges to Pelosi. Because of reported policy differences with the ranking Democrat on the committee, Jane Harman of California, Pelosi may have to choose between the next member in line, Alcee Hastings, backed by the Congressional Black Caucus, or Texas Democrat Silvestre Reyes. The committee chair position has had an increasingly important advisory role, given the emphasis on intelligence flaws prior to the 9/11 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
  • Armed Services. Ike Skelton of Missouri. Skelton has had a close relationship with current chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), but has already served notice he would prepare oversight investigations on waste, mismanagement, and corruption in the military on issues ranging from weapons systems to the Iraq war.
  • Appropriations. David Obey of Wisconsin. He is expected to increase oversight of executive branch agencies funded through the committee, including the State Department and matters such as foreign aid and international broadcasting.
  • Ways and Means. Charles Rangel of New York. A liberal who has been outspoken in his opposition to Bush administration tax cuts, Rangel would head the committee with primary responsibility for international trade policy, including legislation relating to tariffs, import trade, and trade negotiations. He has said he’s willing to work with the White House and Republicans on trade initiatives, but Democrats on the whole appear to be retreating on free trade, say experts. “One thing we know for sure is if the Democrats are running the House, we won’t have bilateral trade agreements,” Roman says. She adds that the fast-track presidential trade promotion authority is not going to be renewed next year no matter which party controls Congress.
  • Energy and Commerce. John Dingell of Michigan. The committee is responsible for a wide range of matters with international reach, including global commerce and oversight of energy issues, air quality, and environmental health. Dingell, who chaired the committee twelve years ago, has fifty years of House experience and is a strong advocate for organized labor and the auto industry. Some experts believe the auto industry constituency may pose problems in the event of any Democratic initiatives involving improved fuel efficiency standards.
  • Judiciary. John Conyers of Michigan. Conyers has backed away from earlier vows to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Bush. At the same time, he says he would revisit civil liberties issues in the Patriot Act. But his most immediate impact could be on an initiative favored by the Bush administration—comprehensive immigration reform. Current chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin backed an immigration bill that emphasizes enforcement. With Conyers heading the committee and the Democrats in control of the House, an immigration bill featuring a guest-worker program, favored by Bush and the Senate, has a good chance of passing through Congress.
  • Homeland Security. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. One of the tasks of the new chairman, says Thurber, will be trying to gain more authority on homeland security issues, from infrastructure to intelligence. He says there are currently ninety committees and subcommittees with joint jurisdiction on these matters. House Democrats have expressed interest in preventing the threat from cargo containers headed for the United States by screening at points of origin, and preventing moves to allow foreign ownership of what is deemed “critical infrastructure,” an issue that surfaced earlier this year in the Dubai Ports World case.
Who would chair important Senate committees in the event of a power shift?
  • Foreign Relations. Joseph Biden of Delaware. Biden and current committee chair Richard Lugar (R-IN) have one of the most cordial relationships of any committee leaders. Biden is co-author of a plan, with CFR President Emeritus Leslie Gelb, that calls for de-centralizing Iraq and providing stronger autonomy for the country’s Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. Biden, who would become chairman of the committee for the second time, “would be in a position to present his views to the public in a way that a ranking member can’t, although he’s been effective in that capacity,” says CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein in an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman. Among the committee’s responsibilities is voting on nominations to top diplomatic posts. One pending vote—the extension of UN ambassador John Bolton’s term—would be doomed under a Democratic majority.
  • Armed Services. Carl Levin of Michigan. Levin has endorsed a plan calling for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He told reporters recently that voters would be, in effect, endorsing his plan if they return control of Congress to Democrats (VOA).
  • Intelligence. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Rockefeller earlier in the year tried to initiate a broad inquiry in the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program. He accused the White House of applying heavy pressure to suppress review of warrantless surveillance. He is among the Democrats who have faced steady criticism from Republicans during the campaign season. The conservative American Spectator said if he gains the chairmanship, “Jay Rockefeller will do his damnedest to stop NSA from listening to any terrorist telephone calls.”

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