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The Impact of the 110th Congress on U.S. Foreign Policy

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: December 21, 2007
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The 2006 elections brought Democratic majorities to the House of Representatives and the Senate, with a new leadership determined to change U.S. policy in Iraq. In the first year of the 110th Congress, Democratic lawmakers steadily challenged President Bush but failed to budge policy on Iraq. Their impact on other foreign policy issues was mixed. Their inability to pass legislation on immigration, domestic surveillance, and other chief issues contributed to sliding approval ratings in surveys like the USA Today/Gallup poll issued at the end of 2007. On the other hand, they fulfilled pledges to bolster some homeland security protections and passed an energy package with sweeping changes to vehicle fuel economy and other conservation efforts. And the Democratic leadership says it will continue to press for a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq, in part because of strong antiwar sentiments among party constituents.

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How Much has the Democratic Congress Affected Iraq War Policy?

Very little. The 110th Congress took office in January 2007 just as President Bush was announcing his “surge” strategy involving an increase of about thirty thousand forces into hot spots in Baghdad and Anbar province. Congressional Democrats, pointing to what they said was an electoral mandate and public opinion surveys showing low support for the war, began early to try to link war-funding legislation to a withdrawal timeline. A bill passed by Congress in April 2007 was vetoed by President Bush and there were insufficient votes for an override. Other attempts in both chambers to establish withdrawal timelines were similarly thwarted by presidential veto threats and the solidarity of Republicans in the Senate, where Democrats hold only a slim majority. Democrats did markedly increase the congressional oversight function on Iraq, holding numerous hearings on issues ranging from how prewar intelligence was handled, to abuses of private contracting, and the conduct of the war itself.

Democrats began the session vowing to force the Defense Department to make war-funding requests out of the regular budget, rather than “emergency supplemental” bills that lawmakers from both parties say have been abused by the Pentagon. But after Bush vetoed the supplemental bill pegging funding to a withdrawal, Congress approved another bill in late May 2007 that provided about $95 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the regular defense budget bill for fiscal year 2008, Democratic congressional leaders decided to separate the funding request for Iraq and Afghanistan with the intent of attaching conditions. They were not able to muster enough support for timelines on deployments in Iraq despite repeated attempts. On December 19, 2007, Congress approved an appropriations package providing $70 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with no timelines attached. This fell well short of the $196 billion the administration had requested. The National Journal publication Congress Daily estimated that the money would give the Army ample funding until about June 2008, when another supplemental would be needed.

Will Congress Change Its Approach to the War?

Despite the year-end defeat of efforts to change or end the U.S. deployment in Iraq, congressional Democrats are unlikely to immediately give up plans to link funding with an Iraqi timeline. But after the conclusion of the spending battles in December 2007, some senior party lawmakers were quoted as saying they didn’t expect a change in Iraq policy unless a Democrat was elected president in the 2008 elections. Meanwhile, lawmakers are set for another showdown in March 2008, when Major Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, is scheduled to deliver his next progress report on the U.S. military surge in Iraq.

What Other Major Foreign Policy Issues Surfaced in Congress?

Terrorist Surveillance. Just prior to the 2007 summer recess, forty-one House Democrats and sixteen Senate Democrats joined Republicans in approving the Protect America Act. The measure expanded warrantless eavesdropping on suspected terrorists contacting sources in the United States through Internet and phone communications and aroused anger from a number of Democrats and civil libertarians. Democratic leaders vowed to take a tougher line when the measure came up for renewal in six months, but at year’s end were still confronting the same unease—whether to permit a permanent expansion of warrantless eavesdropping and shield phone companies from liability for helping the government, or face charges they are weakening the government’s defenses against possible terrorist attacks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) deferred action on the bill until January 2008, when an epic political battle on the issue looms.

Energy Security. Though less sweeping than initially envisioned by Democrats, the energy bill signed into law on December 19, 2007 by President Bush represented a major achievement for the majority party. Democrats were forced to strip away provisions for a renewable fuels mandate for utilities and new taxes on the oil industry. But the measure includes a requirement that automobiles and small trucks increase fuel efficiency by 40 percent, the first such increase in a generation. It also included a range of conservation measures and a mandate to vastly boost consumption of ethanol. Still, Democrats faced criticism from Republicans that the measure failed to spur new oil and coal production or expand nuclear power. They also face a tough road ahead in linking climate-change legislation involving carbon caps to future energy use.

Trade. Congress declined to renew President Bush’s trade promotion authority, or TPA, which expired at the end of June, dealing a blow to efforts to negotiate new free trade agreements as well as the World Trade Organization’s Doha trade round. Congressional Democrats also negotiated vigorously to include labor and environmental standards in already negotiated agreements for Peru, Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. Congress in December passed the Peru free trade agreement but other deals face a tougher legislative road. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), told Congress Daily there was little chance for the other free trade agreements next year. He also signaled plans to move on legislation to pressure China to revalue its currency and honor global trade agreements.

But there were signs Congress itself was going to come under fresh scrutiny on U.S. trade practices because of legislation it approved in 2007. For example, business groups said a version of the Farm Bill passed by the House during the summer had protectionist elements. Their chief concern involved a provision to raise nearly $7.5 billion in the next ten years from foreign corporations with U.S. subsidiaries that would help offset the costs of the bill. After the Senate approved the $286 billion Farm Bill in December 2007, the World Trade Organization said it had opened an investigation into whether the United States was violating international rules limiting subsidies to farmers. President Bush has indicated he may veto the bill. Trade remains a hot issue on the presidential campaign trail among Democratic candidates who have vowed tougher measures to assure what they call “fair trade.”

Immigration. The collapse of a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June was seen by some experts as a resounding defeat for President Bush. But others also point to the Democratic Party’s inability to build consensus for a measure to address a system widely condemned as dysfunctional. In the absence of major changes at the federal level, hundreds of municipalities are pushing tough measures to crack down on employment and services for illegal immigrants. Bush has also directed federal agencies to tighten enforcement of immigration laws at the workplace. The issue also erupted into a major factor on the presidential campaign trail in autumn 2007, especially for Republicans. No action on comprehensive reform is expected at least until 2009 when a new administration is in office.

Homeland Security. In the first half of 2007 Congress followed through on a pledge to complete implementation of recommendations of the 9/11 commission. Major steps in the August 2007 bill (AP) signed by President Bush include measures to screen cargo on passenger planes and container ships within five years. But the Democratic vice-chairman of the commission, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, said one failure of the bill was not including the commission’s recommendation for Congress to rationalize its numerous overlapping mechanisms for overseeing intelligence and homeland security issues.

Amid a year-end flurry of spending measures, appropriators aroused criticism from some Republican lawmakers regarding border fencing and security for chemical plants. One provision in a homeland security bill appears to soften requirements for building a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border as mandated by the Secure Fence Act. In addition to Democrats, some border state Republicans favored easing that rule. A second provision would give state and local governments permission to exceed federal rules in establishing laws on security for chemical plants. 

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