If Republicans win the House, as predicted, their evolution on the foreign policy front will be a harbinger of what a 2024 Republican presidency could mean for U.S. allies.
When a group of German parliamentarians travelled to the battleground state of Pennsylvania in September to learn about the midterm elections, they got to hear the full range of voter concerns: spikes in gas prices, high inflation and living costs, and inadequate housing provide more than enough grist for the political mill. Despite their clear focus on domestic challenges, almost all politicians the group interacted with drew a connection to the war in Ukraine. Conventional wisdom holds that the American voter does not care about U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, whom Americans vote for will be highly consequential for the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy, no matter if candidates ran their campaign on issues of national security and foreign policy or not. One American journalist who engaged with the German parliamentarians in Philadelphia even went so far as to say that results in upcoming congressional races would matter more for the future of transatlantic relations than whoever ends up in the White House in 2024.
Traditionally, the U.S. president’s party always loses in the midterm elections. This time around, the polls on FiveThirtyEight forecast a Republican majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate. But in some Senate races the polls are too close to predict a clear winner, so there is a chance for Democrats to still lose both chambers.
So how does Congress shape U.S. foreign policy? And how could a Republican majority-led House of Representatives or Senate influence the Biden administration’s policy?
Funding Foreign Policy: Power of the Purse
One of the most powerful tools in the hands of Congress is the “power of the purse.” This power takes its most concrete form in the annual appropriations bills that make their way through the complexity of congressional committees. If the U.S. government wants to provide foreign aid or deliver much-needed equipment to key allies and partners, it needs to get approval from Congress. Until recently there has been widespread bipartisan support for Ukraine. But as aid requests mount and the tides of the war turn in unpredictable directions, this support may start to wane and bipartisanship could further erode after the midterm elections.
The United States has given substantial financial support to Ukraine, significantly more than Europe. Total U.S. aid packages to Ukraine amount to an estimated 66 billion dollars – about double the total that comes from EU member states and EU institutions. While the immediate consequences of the sanctions against Russia and the energy crisis reverberate more strongly in Europe, more and more Republicans question whether money for Ukraine is money well spent and if funding should continue at this pace. Already in May, 11 Republican Senators – including Missouri Senator Josh Hawley who riled up Trump supporters on January 6, 2021 – voted against Ukrainian aid. The latest stopgap bill to keep the U.S. government running included another $12.4 billion. Only a handful of Republicans lent their backing.
Support for Ukraine Aid Waning
Politico-Magazine predicts that “the window for massive emergency bills” is closing. The pressure from American constituents is rising, with many concerned about inflation and high gas prices or in need of aid in the wake of the catastrophic Hurricane Ian. If—as predicted--Trump Republicans are elected to the House and Senate, the calls to cut back on military, financial, and humanitarian funding for Ukraine and defer more responsibility to Europe will only grow. The trend has not gone unnoticed in Kyiv and could jeopardize the current momentum on the battlefield.
If Democrats keep the majority in the Senate, expect to see more disagreement with the Biden administration’s foreign policy from within the president’s own party. Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez gave a glimpse into what is to come, when he publically threatened to block all future weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and demanded a reassessment of the U.S. relationship with the Kingdom. Aside from holding up arms trade through the Foreign Relations Committee, Congress can also pass legislation to block or modify an arms sale at any time until the delivery of the items.
Together with the power of the purse, Congress also has the power to declare war. If Russia’s war against Ukraine were to significantly escalate and require an active U.S. response, Biden would need Congressional approval to intervene militarily. He could get this approval in advance if Congress were to pass a resolution for the authorization for use of military force (AUMF). Adam Kinzinger (R, Rep. Illinois) unsuccessfully introduced such a proposal in May, which would have given President Biden the ability to respond with armed force if Russia uses chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
One of the most basic functions of Congress is to conduct oversight of the government’s actions and spending – including on matters of foreign policy. With a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and ranking Republicans on committees, one can expect to see a barrage of hearings and investigations. During their midterm campaigns, House Republicans have already previewed investigations into the origin of the coronavirus, weapons sales to Ukraine, and the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. With a majority in the House, Republicans could also use subpoenas as an investigation tool. A recently published report by Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee lays out the course of action for an investigation into the Afghanistan withdrawal. They would likely subpoena Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and hold a series of open hearings with Biden officials, such as national security advisor Jake Sullivan.
China on Top of the Agenda
With the war in Ukraine taking up most of the attention for foreign policy, Republicans have a vested interest in putting China back on top of the agenda in Congress. There is broad bipartisan consensus on perceiving China as the main geopolitical competitor in the decades to come. Anti-China views play well with certain constituencies, so there is a competition in Washington, D.C. for the title of biggest China hawk. The GOP already declared an “intense China focus” if it flips the House. Part of the strategy will be to prove that the Biden administration is too soft on China. From cyber and space policy, to supply chains, Taiwan and Hunter Biden’s laptop – Republicans have a full plate of China-related topics they want to highlight in the next two years.
The U.S. Congress has a long history of rejecting international treaties, notably the Law of the Sea Convention and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Although not a treaty, with a Republican-dominated Congress, any prospects for a reinstatement of the nuclear deal with Iran would likely be off the table. Even if the negotiations for a return into the JCPOA concluded successfully, the administration would still need to go through Congressional review because of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. If Biden tries to bypass Congress, lawsuits from Republican lawmakers could follow suit.
Isolationist slant on the rise?
Germany and other U.S. allies should pay close attention to the shifting foreign policy tides in the U.S. Congress after November 8.
If the Republicans win a majority in the Senate, they will exert even more influence on the foreign policy front. They could easily refuse to confirm Biden’s political nominations for key posts. This move would result in even more vacant Ambassadorial posts at a time when vigorous diplomacy is more important than ever.
Meanwhile, if Republicans win the House, as predicted, their evolution on the foreign policy front will be a harbinger of what a 2024 Republican presidency could mean for U.S. allies. If the pro-Trump insurgents garner support in the party with their isolationist slant and overpower the remaining traditional Republicans, who still work across the aisle on matters of national security, it will have big implications for transatlantic relations. The EU and NATO can hope for the best, but they would be wise to prepare for the worst.