The nuances behind recent changes in Congress’s foreign policy role

As Congress prepares to return from its summer recess, it’s a good time to evaluate how its foreign policy role is evolving during the Trump administration.

The most notable law enacted during the first eight months of the year was the legislation resisted by the Trump administration that placed new sanctions on Russia and gave Congress an effective veto over the lifting of Russia sanctions. But that landmark law is not the only way in which Congress has been challenging the administration in foreign policy.

ADVERTISEMENT

Lawmakers in both parties pronounced the president’s request for a nearly 31 percent cut in U.S. spending on diplomacy and foreign assistance dead on arrival, and Congress looks set to approve much smaller cuts in those areas. On NATO, the House and Senate passed resolutions reaffirming the U.S. commitment to collective defense under the alliance, after Trump declined to express such a commitment during a major speech at NATO headquarters. In ongoing investigations, several congressional committees are examining possible links between Russia and Trump advisers and associates.

These tensions between Congress and the administration have been all the more striking given that the Republican Party controls both branches of government. But do these developments signal greater congressional control over U.S foreign policy? Yes and no.

Congress has clearly become more assertive on issues where Trump’s policies have been at odds with the prevailing sentiment in both parties on the Hill, such as matters involving Russia and the U.S. commitment to longstanding allies. But in some other important areas – such as military action – lawmakers so far remain unable to place new restraints on presidential power.

While the sanctions law enacted this summer imposed new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, the Russia portion garnered the most attention because it was a direct response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the law further constrained the president by establishing a congressional review process in the event the president seeks to lift sanctions.

On the whole, the law was largely in keeping with a pattern dating back several decades in which lawmakers have regularly advanced sanctions legislation based on security, economic or human rights concerns about the behavior of other governments. Congress has approved many such bills even when administrations have expressed serious concerns about them.

However, Congress had never before given itself the power to disapprove the future lifting of sanctions when enacting a sanctions law, though it had put in place a similar process to review the nuclear deal that President Obama negotiated with Iran in 2015. (In that case, the agreement’s opponents lacked sufficient votes to overturn the deal.) If Congress also mandates such a review process in future sanctions measures, this will herald a clear strengthening of congressional power in this area of policy making.

The other most striking foreign policy development on the Hill this year has been the bipartisan effort to preserve core elements of American internationalism. All U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSaagar Enjeti rips Buttigieg for praising Obama after misquote Steyer scores endorsement from key New Hampshire activist Saagar Enjeti dismisses Warren, Klobuchar claims of sexism MORE strongly supported the use of security alliances, trade agreements, and foreign aid as tools for advancing U.S. interests and values. When presidents prior to Donald Trump disagreed with Congress over the extent of U.S. political and economic engagement abroad, it was almost always the president that favored more extensive engagement.

Under President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE – who has pursued a more nationalist foreign policy of placing “America first” – this inter-branch dynamic has flipped. Remarkably, Congress looks poised to increase overall spending on diplomacy and foreign aid far above an administration’s budget request for the first time in modern American history. (The House and Senate appropriations committees have approved spending levels in these areas that exceed the Trump administration’s request by more than 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively).

On the other hand, the role of Congress in decisions involving military action has not clearly changed under President Trump. Nearly all experts agree that it is a stretch to base the U.S. military campaign against ISIS on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was enacted by Congress following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But under both Obama and Trump lawmakers have been unable to reach consensus on a proposal to replace that AUMF with one that could provide clearer authority and set new guideposts for combat against ISIS and other U.S. military activities in the Middle East and Afghanistan. While there are signs that legislative efforts to update the AUMF may be gaining some momentum, Congress remains rather far from achieving agreement on legislation. Congress has also left decisions regarding the deployment of troops to the Middle East and Afghanistan largely in Trump’s hands.

The upshot is that Congress is going through an adjustment, but not a sea change, in its foreign policy role. Congress is flexing its muscles on those issues where Trump administration policies have raised hackles in both parties, but the president retains considerable power to set the course of U.S. policy in other important areas of international affairs.

Jordan Tama is associate professor at the School of International Service at American University, and co-editor of the new sixth edition of Rivals for Power: Presidential-Congressional Relations.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.