This past week, the Democratic Party won control of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, however, the Democrats lost several seats, though multiple races remain uncalled.
The U.S. midterm elections, as I have noted, will likely have several effects on U.S. policy toward Asia. For one, with Democrats in control of the House, New York Representative Eliot Engel will head up the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Engel and other Democrats on the committee probably will have several priorities. They likely will attempt to relaunch legislation that would bolster sanctions on any actors, such as Russian actors, who interfere in U.S. elections in the future. Engel and other Democrats also likely would step up pressure on Russia in other ways, such as holding more hearings on Russian (and possibly) Chinese interference in elections, and possibly highlighting continuing gaps in U.S. preparation for foreign actors meddling in elections.
At least on issues related to alleged Chinese lobbying and interference, Democrats may have an ally in the White House, which has in recent months launched an aggressive campaign to highlight what it claims is Beijing's rapidly expanding efforts to meddle in U.S. politics.
Democrats also appear likely to push a tougher approach to Saudi Arabia, following the apparent murder of journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi. A tougher approach could include trying to halt U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia—a move that would have support from some influential Republicans as well—and trying to block U.S. backing for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. Democrats on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee may further push for greater oversight of U.S. military operations in Africa and the Middle East.
In addition, a major priority of Democrats who now control the House, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will be to try to keep the State Department functioning as a vital institution. Doing so, as I have noted, will involve several actions. For one, Democrats probably will step up investigations of State Department employees who claim they have been retaliated against for expressing certain views. The Democratic House also likely will try to get the State Department authorization bill passed, even though this is a very unlikely prospect.
A House Foreign Affairs Committee led by Democrats also is likely to increase attention on human rights challenges globally—at a time when the Trump administration has largely abandoned focusing on rights abuses and democracy promotion. Democrats may try to get tougher legislation on Myanmar passed in the House, thereby putting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who appears to want to stonewall tougher approaches to Myanmar and continues to support the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government, despite its evident failings—in the position of having to publicly quash legislation targeting more Myanmar leaders linked to the violence in Rakhine State. A House Foreign Affairs Committee led by Democrats also likely will push for hearings on rights abuses in many other countries, seeking to again elevate rights advocacy as a core component of U.S. foreign policy.
On climate change, meanwhile, prospective Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has already said that Democrats will “revive a select committee focused on climate change similar to the one that Democrats funded from 2007 to early 2011 to ‘prepare the way with evidence’ for energy conservation and other climate change mitigation legislation,” according to the New York Times. Democrats will especially push to highlight climate change, and its potentially serious ramifications for migration, security, and trade, in Asia.
Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee also likely will push the White House to make clearer how it intends to develop its trade strategy in Asia, which currently seems to rely on pushing bilateral deals with states including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Of those three countries, only Tokyo seems significantly interested in moving forward with some kind of deal, although Hanoi and Manila are apparently open to exploratory talks. Democrats in the House likely will want the White House to more clearly explain whether any new bilateral deals will rely on the model of the revised United States-Canada-Mexico deal.