With midterm elections less than one week away, foreign visitors to this town are asking, "What will a change of majority in Congress mean for U.S. foreign policy?" For many, there is the unspoken hope that somehow Democrats will be able to change the direction of a Bush foreign policy they don't like -- just as prior to the 2004 presidential election there was the hope that Sen. John Kerry would take the White House and effect a change of course. "Will Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld be replaced if the Democrats win?" they ask a bit breathlessly.
First a word of caution -- it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Congress will change hands. While papers like The Washington Post have been running story after front-page story stating that the Democrats stand to win control of Congress, analysis of individual races, based for instance on levels of fundraising, indicates that Republican losses will be less extensive, allowing them to hold onto a slim majority in both Houses.
Furthermore, foreign policy being primarily the domain of the executive branch, and the president being the commander in chief, it is likely to be less affected than domestic policy. But even if major policy changes, such as a precipitous pullout from Iraq is not a realistic scenario no matter who wins the House and Senate next week, in some ways it will be a different era if the Democrats take even one of the branches of Congress. It will be an era in which we can expect not so much a new direction as gridlock and standstill.
The power of Congress to influence foreign policy lies mainly in four areas: the power to originate spending bills gives the House the power of the purse; the power of consultation and consent gives the Senate an important role in the new appointments and treaty ratification; both houses have the power to deny the president Trade Promotion Authority to negotiate international trade agreements; and in both the House and the Senate, the power to investigate and subpoena administration officials can be a huge drain on the White House and government departments under scrutiny.
In other words, in each case, Congress cannot create new momentum, but it can certainly put the brakes on the White House. As committee chairmanships change hands, so does a lot of power. With Rep. Charles Rangel -- an outspoken critic of the U.S. mission in Iraq -- in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee, getting approval for supplemental spending for the war would be a difficult challenge for the administration.
The fact is that Democrats, like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, are quick to criticize the Bush administration's performance in Iraq, but none of them has actually articulated a Democratic plan for Iraq. Yet, at the very least, benchmarks for the deployment could be imposed by Democrats, who could tie funding to recommendations expected from the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq. Democrats, however, will have to be careful not to do anything that appears directed against U.S. troops in Iraq, which always goes down badly with the American people.
In the Senate, confirmation hearings and treaties would have a much harder time passing. This could be good news for Mr. Rumsfeld, who would not likely be replaced at Defense if his successor were to face Democratic opposition. It would, however, be bad news for U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, whose recess appointment runs out at the end of the year, and who could not be confirmed with Democrats in power.
Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and bilateral free-trade agreements would also be casualties were Congress to change hands, with severe consequences for the president's free-trade agenda. TPA, which gives the president free hands to negotiate on trade, runs out this summer and would not likely be renewed. And of the two pending free-trade agreements, with Peru and Vietnam, only Vietnam is likely to pass, having already bipartisan support.
The major blow to Mr. Bush's foreign policy, though, would be the slew of investigations into various aspects of the president's Iraq policy, intelligence gathering, and the government's anti-terrorism surveillance activities. In the House, one of Mr. Bush's most strident opponents, Rep. John Conyers, would be heading the Judiciary Committee. He has threatened to start impeachment proceedings against Mr. Bush.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has declared impeachment a non-starter out of concern for a backlash against the Democrats in the 2008 presidential election if their go overboard. Would her really colleagues listen? Stay tuned.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times