• Saleem Qamar Butt

Impact of Midterm Elections on US’ Policies

In a dramatic midterm election, President Donald Trump’s Republican Party retained control of the Senate and the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives with 222 votes, while Republican got reduced to 196. In the senate, Republican got 51(majority) and democrats retained 45 seats. The Democrats gained more than the 23 seats they needed to take control of the House. It is the first time the party has held the majority in the lower house of Congress for eight years. On January 3, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump will face a new reality: a chamber of Congress under control of the opposition party. Confronting a hostile Democratic House of Representatives will be a rude awakening for a president who chafes at any limits on his authority. The loss of the House will make it harder for President Trump to push his policies forward. The Democrats have clawed their way back to a measure of power in the US federal government and the era of unified rule for Donald Trump and the Republicans is over. The House of Representatives, which reliably churned out hard-line immigration legislation, Obama-care repeal and steep cuts to social programmes under Republican rule – even though many of the bills died in the Senate – will now start offering up progressive priorities. Now it’s Democrats’ turn to see their efforts languish in the Senate, but liberals finally have a platform to showcase what they would do with full control of Congress – and, perhaps, the presidency in 2020. Meanwhile, Mr Trump’s only hope of achieving any signature laws is by working across the aisle – which may be a heavy lift for a man who spent the past few months disparaging his political opponents in the starkest of language at rallies across the country. Of more immediate concern for the president, however, is that Democrats now have some teeth behind their efforts to scrutinise his administration.


First on the list, according to the likely Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, is a package of government ethics and election reform measures. The House Intelligence Committee, which ran the chamber’s investigation into 2016 Russian investigation meddling, will be under the control of outspoken Trump antagonist Adam Schiff, who has pledged to look deeper into the president’s foreign financial dealings. It may not be long before the president’s tax returns, that Holy Grail for some of the president’s liberal antagonists, are revealed to the public. Other members of the Trump administration may also be open to scrutiny. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may be first under the spotlight following accusations that he took official actions that benefited his business interests. Taking a leaf from American history (Richard Nixon), now POTUS Trump may have to even worry more about his impeachment. It takes a simple majority of the House to undertake the first step to removing a president, and the Democrats now have that majority. If Special Counsel Robert Mueller files his report into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump 2016 presidential campaign in the coming days (weeks or months) and it contains damning information, it could badly rock Trump’s boat.


For the first two years of his presidency, Trump experienced little resistance from the Republican-controlled Congress as he sought to disrupt the established international order. Republicans largely stood by as Trump withdrew from vital international agreements, embraced autocrats while giving allies the cold shoulder, used Twitter to threaten friends and foes alike, and discarded democracy and human rights as core values of U.S. foreign policy. The US Constitution gives more authority to Congress over foreign affairs than most observers understand. It has the power of the purse, the power to declare war, and the power to regulate the armed forces, trade, and immigration. Congress can fund programs it supports and withhold money from those it doesn’t. It can block initiatives that require legislation and use investigations to expose and curtail executive-branch wrongdoing. And it can reach out to allies and admonish adversaries.


On January 3, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump will face a new reality: a chamber of Congress under control of the opposition party. Confronting a hostile Democratic House of Representatives will be a rude awakening for a president who chafes at any limits on his authority. The loss of the House will make it harder for President Trump to push his policies forward. The Democrats have clawed their way back to a measure of power in the US federal government and the era of unified rule for Donald Trump and the Republicans is over.

Congress has taken some steps to check Trump. In 2017, it imposed new sanctions on Russia-measures that Trump signed under protest and has been reluctant to implement. In July 2018, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution that rejected the idea that Russian law enforcement should be allowed to interrogate Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, who was accused by the Kremlin of “illegal activities.” (The Kremlin provided no evidence for its accusation.) And in two successive budgets, Congress has rejected Trump’s efforts to slash funding for diplomacy and international development; a bipartisan statement from the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2017 decried an “apparent doctrine of retreat” that would serve to “weaken America’s standing in the world.” However, beyond these limited steps, Congress proved unable to act in the last two years due overly bipartisan house.


Nevertheless, much of that action required majorities in both houses of Congress. Without control of the Senate, Democrats will have fewer options, but they can still make a significant impact. Their first step should be returning to standard practice for oversight, a core function of the congressional committees. Congress has multiple committees that cover national security: Foreign Affairs and Foreign Relations, Armed Services, Intelligence, Homeland Security, and Appropriations, as well as the investigative committees. They are likely to hit the ground running in January 2019. To begin with, they may hold hearings on U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan and Central America; the impact of tariffs on economic and foreign policy; and growing transnational threats, particularly climate change, cyber security, and terrorism. Even though Republicans retained control of the Senate, Democrats can still exert influence there. Nominations offer serious leverage to individual senators, no matter which party holds the majority. An individual senator can place a hold on a nomination to influence policy or force the administration to hand over information or provide witnesses for hearings. More broadly, Congress is expected to take steps to safeguard the United States’ role in the international order. At the top of the list could be defending multilateral institutions. Congress could enact legislation to block Trump from pulling the United States out of NATO and the World Trade Organisation-something he has reportedly considered doing. Some in Congress question whether Trump can withdraw from treaties unilaterally, but there is no doubt that Congress could pass a statute preventing him from taking such impulsive steps. Such legislation would send a strong signal abroad that the United States’ longstanding commitment to international institutions and alliances remains strong.


Perhaps the most potent tool Congress has is the power of the purse. The Constitution dictates that no money can be drawn from the Treasury without appropriations made by law. Congress thus has substantial authority to influence policy, subject only to executive-branch foot-dragging in executing congressional directives or the rare presidential veto. Controlling the purse is one way in which Congress has pushed back successfully against the Trump administration during its first two years. During the next two, the Appropriations Committees will likely do the same in both chambers. This past summer, the Trump administration attempted to rescind billions of dollars in foreign aid money, a move that would have slashed the State Department and USAID budgets months after Trump had signed the appropriations bill funding them into law. Faced with bipartisan congressional outrage, the White House backed down. Similarly, Congress has substantial control over arms exports, which it could use to curtail U.S. support for the bloody war that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are waging in Yemen. Congress could also reclaim its control over military action. Article 1 of the Constitution gives Congress not merely the authority to declare war but also substantial power over the use of force and the regulation of the armed forces. The framers would not recognise the practice that has developed over the last few decades, with presidents directing extensive U.S. military actions while Congress often sits on the sidelines. The most immediate task is to repeal and replace the 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed just after 9/11 to give the president the power to defend the country against those who planned the 9/11 attacks and anyone who aided them. The law remains in effect, and has been used far beyond its original intent. The executive branch has invoked it to justify counter-terrorism operations in a long list of countries, as well as the continued detention of terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay. Congress could replace it with a statute that is more narrowly tailored, limiting it to such conflicts as those in Afghanistan and the campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). A bipartisan effort in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the current Congress would be a good starting point. As for other countries relevant to US’ policies especially in the CASA region, US pullout from Afghanistan in a prudent way through a regional approach may bring around a win-win situation for most if not all the countries. Trade war with China, bigger contest in Asia-Pacific may also be played in a more sombre manner instead of hyperbole reactions.


The U.S. Constitution gives the president considerable power over foreign policy. In recent years, successive presidents have expanded that authority. Trump has used those powers to begin remaking the United States’ global image and role. Yet the framers of the Constitution wisely vested Congress with powers of its own to influence and check the executive. Americans have voted. Now Congress must act.


Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is a senior retired Army officer with rich experience in Military & Intelligence Diplomacy and Strategic Analysis.


Published in Daily Times, November 17th 2018.