New Congress Presents Opportunities for Fresh Foreign Policy Leadership

Americans rarely vote on foreign policy when they elect a Congress, but occasionally a Congress is elected with the incentive and inclination to impact foreign policy.

There were 1974’s so-called “Watergate babies” who reasserted Congress’ role in foreign policy.  Twenty years later, some in the Gingrich Revolution promised to slash America’s U.N. payments, while others, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), became articulate voices for neoconservativism.

But no incoming class of freshmen has been better prepared than the 2018 class to help replenish Congress’ depleted foreign policy bench.

We know Congress can do more because – over a combined three decades on Capitol Hill, at the State Department and elsewhere in the Administration – we’ve been on the giving and receiving end of vigorous congressional oversight and activism.

Never before has Congress been in greater need of fresh passion, purpose and punch in global affairs. Foreign policy hands such as Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) have been elected in recent cycles and seen their profiles grow, but the institution still feels the impact of turnover that robbed it of experienced foreign policy hands like Joe Biden, John Kerry, Tom Lantos, Howard Berman, Chris Dodd, Max Baucus, Richard Lugar — and now Bob Corker and John McCain.

But a congressional cavalry is coming – including such Reps.-elect as Andy Kim of New Jersey, who helped build the global coalition against the Islamic State group; Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, a former assistant secretary of State for human rights policy; Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who served as a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer; and former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw of Texas.

They can contribute to a critical mass to reassert congressional authority – and these are just five areas where a new Congress can make a difference:

Check the president’s war powers. When Congress voted to attack the architects of the Sept. 11 attacks, they never imagined we’d still be fighting 17 years later, against some enemies that didn’t even exist back then. Congress can – and should – pass a new counterterrorism authorization.

Rein in runaway tariff authorities. Congress should be united in fighting for American jobs, but President Donald Trump’s approach — from labeling allies Canada and Germany as national security threats, to rebranding the old NAFTA as a new NAFTA after breaking immeasurable diplomatic crockery — isn’t the right way. American farmers are losing market share, and manufacturers are taking jobs overseas thanks to Trump’s tariffs. Congress can legislate a requirement for congressional approval before tariffs are applied on “national security” grounds.

Focusing the U.S.-China negotiations. And while many want to be tough on China, Congress can help focus China policy on intellectual property theft, forced tech transfer, restrictive joint ventures, media and academic freedoms and human rights that all seem to be more endemic concerns in the U.S.-China relationship than a tariff battle that has thus far only rebounded onto American workers, farmers, manufacturers, jobs and wages.

Economic policy is foreign policy. Those who remember the 2002 Dubai Ports World firestorm know that foreign acquisitions involving critical infrastructure can become instant flash points.

Upcoming transactions, particularly those touching on Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE, are ripe for debate. The Sprint-T-Mobile merger would create America’s first 5G Network, but the companies involved have yet to provide any evidence that Huawei technology would be excluded. Even though the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has signed off on this transaction, Congress must continue to ask questions and the Federal Communications Commission should demand enforceable conditions, including technology audits, to ensure Huawei equipment doesn’t end up in the merged company’s network in the future.

After all, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was an outspoken critic of the Trump Administration’s plan for a government-run 5G network to protect against Chinese espionage, insisting the private sector could do it better.  That is a reasonable position, but on a merger touted as the key to America’s 5G future, it is also fair to ask whether this merger will make Huawei more or less ubiquitous worldwide, for congressional overseers to know what assurances the companies have made and for regulators to ensure they are upholding their end of the bargain.

Scrutiny of Huawei comes from both sides, from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)  – so bipartisan scrutiny of the merger is critical.

Wrestle with Russia. Both parties agree the president’s bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t in America’s interests. Russia exploits weakness. Broad agreement could be achieved on additional sanctions to confront aggression in Ukraine, and Congress could pass legislation to demand reports to Congress on the reality of foreign interference in our democracy. And they could use the power of the purse — the appropriations process — to ensure that agencies taking on these threats are fully funded to protect our country.

These are just some tools that could empower a co-equal branch of government. And Trump has reminded us why they’re necessary. Change can come to foreign policy – and it should. A new generation coming to Washington can put Congress back in the game.


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Scott Mulhauser is the founder of Aperture Strategies, the former chief of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the Export-Import Bank, and a former senior adviser to the Senate Finance Committee. David Eckels Wade is the founder of GreenLight Strategies, the former chief of staff at the State Department and former chief of staff to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Morning Consult