Friday, December 07, 2012

Foreign Policy Issue Leaders in Congress

From Photo Gallery: Our Unpopular Congres
      Today only 9% of Americans approve of Congress. In other words Congress’s approval rating is the same as Hugo Chavez’s in 2007, even less than BP’s approval during the oil spill in 2010 and less than the ratings of banks and Oil and Gas industry in general. Low ratings of Congress are not a new thing and American public is not an exception for not loving their legislators, but 112th Congress was still unprecedentedly unpopular and dysfunctional. U.S. has had divided governments before, but the last Congress had clearly been the least productive – it has adopted the least number of laws in the history of Congress; obstructionism and filibuster have become much too common, for example, the House has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 33 times; it’s extremely polarized along the party lines, and is unprecedentedly falling behind on appropriations approvals. The situation is even worse when it comes to Congress’s role in foreign policy.  Richard Lugar observed in his commentary  that for the last six years only two foreign-policy initiatives have come to the Senate floor in an amendable format, these where new START treaty in 2010 and America’s global efforts to combat AIDS in 2008.

Both, Administration and Congress are blaming each other for not being cooperative. Administration is usually pointing the finger at Congress’s inefficiency and partisanship. At the same time, it is to certain extent annoyed, when congressional leaders become more actively involved in foreign policy, in the field where the leadership of White House feels it has an exclusive mandate. Some of the Congressmen and Congresswomen have been widely criticized for making frequent or uncoordinated visits overseas and meeting with foreign leaders. One of such cases was Nancy Pelosi’s meeting with President Assad in 2007, when she allegedly delivered the message from Israeli Prime Minister. Newt Gingrich makes a good point, that “it’s very important not to have two foreign policies,” that Congressional leaders and Administration speak the same language. If there is no conflict between their statements and/or if congressional leaders speak only of themselves and not on behalf of the U.S. government, they should be free to travel wherever they want and meet whoever they find relevant. On the other hand, Congressional leaders blame Administration for not involving Congress in foreign policy matters. Many believe that Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton administrations paid much more attention to Congressional participation than the George W. Bush or Barack Obama administrations do. Ex-Senator Richard Lugar wrote in his recent commentary that even though Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton are responsive to their former colleagues, “the Obama Administration as a whole has frequently resisted Congressional involvement in major foreign-policy decisions and issues. On several key questions, in fact, the Administration has aggressively challenged Congress's foreign-policy powers.” Mr. Lugar was referring to the 2011 Libya Operation and Obama’s less known decision to revise the practice of Congressional approval of U.S. arms sales.
Given this reality it is interesting to look at who were and are foreign policy and national security issue leaders in Congress today. Competitive environment of the Cold War has clearly encouraged legislators’ foreign policy initiatives. Joe Lieberman, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, nicknamed “the three amigos” by General Petraeus, are often described as legends, who were present and participated in every foreign policy discussion. Many believe that it was their bipartisanship that made their trio so influential and attractive. Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham represented conservative camp, while Mr. Lieberman was an independent democrat-turned senator. Other significant foreign policy voices were and are Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), authors of Nunn-Lugar Act of 1992, Joe Biden (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from 2001 to 2009 who advocated deeper relationship with Russia, NATO’s eastern expansion, tougher China policy, and etc., John Kerry (D-MA), Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2004,  who is believed to be one of the candidates to head Pentagon in Obama’s second administration, Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and an advocate for strategic, tactical, and scientific values of UAVs, John Kyl (R-AZ), member of the subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Homeland Security and a Republican Whip, and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), whose foreign policy achievements during her tenure in Senate is questioned by some, but still she was clearly more vocal and visible on foreign policy scene than her other peers.     
Most of the Democrats mentioned above, except for John Kerry, have either retired or took up the public office in Obama administration. Now John Kerry is also being considered on the position of Pentagon Chief. Hence, almost all old generation foreign policy congressional leaders left in Congress are Republicans and so are the so called “emerging leaders.” These are New Hampshire’s Republican Kelly Ayotte, who was one of the candidates considered as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Many think she will be replacing outgoing Mr. Lieberman in “the trio”, although she won’t be able to add the ‘bipartisanship component’ and the unique foreign policy experience to the team. She has already acted in tandem with Mr. McCaian and Mr. Graham criticizing Administration’s response on Benghazi. The new trio’s first joint attempt to hold Ms. Rice or the Administration accountable was limited and not very impressive. Other, even younger, emerging leaders seem to be Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), member of House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a Deputy Republican Whip. He’s a proponent of nuclear energy and has declared U.S.’s energy independence as his number one priority. And Tom Cotton (R-AR), a freshman in Congress, seen as experienced in Afghan politics because of his army background. 

So, the trend at first glance seems to be that conservatives lead the foreign policy agenda in Congress and there are very few new faces. There might be more influential personalities among staffers, but public information about them is very limited. Also, it is widely acknowledged that because of this lack of experienced issue leaders, especially after closure of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and Congress’s Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, the lobbyists and issue-advocates have become more influential.   

Questions to think about –
a.      Does this mean that Congressional oversight on Administration’s foreign policy is even weaker today than before? What implication can that have for U.S.’s foreign policy and on the Administration?

b.     What is the desirable level of congressional leaders’ involvement in foreign policy? Or is this the area which the White House can handle the best?

c.      Would you add anyone to the list of the “new generation foreign policy” leaders? Or do you think anyone mentioned above is irrelevant?  

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