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Congress and the President: Compromise or Confrontation?

Commentary, 8 November 2012
Americas, Defence Policy
Now the election is over and the composition of Congress is known, both Republicans and Democrats must come to a compromise to ensure the smooth running of US foreign policy and to avert the looming threat of sequestration.

Now the election is over and the composition of Congress is known, both Republicans and Democrats must come to a compromise to ensure the smooth running of US foreign policy and to avert the looming threat of sequestration.

Congress and Foreign Policy

Several hundred million dollars and two years later the American electorate returned President Obama to office, as well as maintaining roughly the same balance between Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Because the US system is composed of checks and balances, rather than a majority controlled Westminster style-parliamentary system; control of the House and Senate gives extraordinary influence on future policies, particular with respect to defence. The election result is a recipe for continued deadlock and contentious battles on some aspects of US foreign policy.

Congress and Foreign Policy

The US Constitution endows the Presidency with the initiative in foreign affairs, but that is about it. The centralised nature of the Executive Branch and the resources of the executive departments make the President the most responsive to international issues. But like all aspects of American governance, the responsibility for US foreign policy is split between the executive and the legislative institutions.

The President, as Commander-in-Chief, can use military force under the War Powers Act and negotiate treaties, but he must seek the approval of both measures in Congress.[1] Furthermore, Congress determines the budgets that facilitate the work of foreign policy bodies such as the US State Department, US Agency of International Development and the Department of Defense. More specifically the House of Representatives holds the power of the purse, while the Senate has control over treaty ratification. Congress can financially starve the goals of the President if it so wishes and it can deny him foreign policy 'wins' on treaties ranging from accords on climate control to free trade regulations. For example the US has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea due to the objections of Senate conservatives.

Finally, and very different to Members of Parliament in the UK or other European states, members of Congress, especially US Senators, wield enormous individual political power.  Senators such as Jim DeMint (R-NC) have used their position to block legislation and executive nominations to critical foreign policy posts. Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) has stymied arms control initiatives of the Executive Branch for over a decade now. The leadership of Senate and House committees reflects the political composition of both chambers. Republicans are already critically probing the attacks against the US Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 that resulted in the death of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

There are a number of critical issues where the Republican-controlled House and individual Republican Senators may cause a number of problems for the President. The White House wants to move forward with a more positive relationship with Russia, in particular advancing cooperation on arms control and perhaps a process to replace the Nunn-Lugar 'Cooperative Threat Reduction' programme. Such talks will probably include new US missile defence plans. The President wants to strike a big bargain with Moscow, but Republicans that see Moscow as a primary opponent of the United States will most likely stymie such efforts. This is regretful, since the US and Russia have thus far failed to use arms control in the post-Cold War era to build trust, understanding and real cooperation.

On foreign affairs the President would most likely also like to improve the capacity of the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). But if the past provides any guidance, Republicans will oppose additional spending on State and USAID. Even when former US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates called on Congress to increase spending on the State Department, the Republicans pushed back. The GOP gutted USAID funding and the 2010 Congress, driven by the GOP, cut $296 million from the State Department's budget request for embassy security and construction.

Sequestration Looms

The most pressing American national security issue that the next Congress and the White House must address is the burden of the US national debt and the impending budget 'sequestration' that will arrive on 1 January, 2013.

As part of the deal reached on raising the federal debt ceiling both sides agreed to massive tax hikes and huge slashes to Federal spending come 2013 if a more comprehensive deal isn't made. The lame-duck Congress following the November election will probably find a way to stave sequestration off for a few months, meaning the re-elected Obama Administration and Congress will have to deal with the problem. The track record for executive-legislative cooperation in Washington does not bode well for the future, but both sides seem keen to avoid the cuts.

The Budget Control Act passed last year is set to see funding for the Pentagon cut by $487 billion over the coming decade. Although sequestration will not be pleasant, recent studies from the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, both in Washington DC, indicate that sequestration will be manageable. The size of the defence budget has been an issue for some time with most Democrats favouring less spending on defence and most Republicans in favour of more spending. But even on the Republican side of the aisle more astute defence experts, such as former Deputy Director of Policy Planning at the State Department Dr. Kori Schake have strongly argued that the US needs to reign-in out of control defence spending.

Most Republicans in Congress, however, paint sequestration as a looming disaster. The House Armed Services Committee report titled What Sequestration Really Means illustrates this. Such panicked press releases, however, offer no reflection of the efficacy of projects being cut nor do they discuss how forces could be reformed to save money and be more effective. Instead the focus is on expensive and complicated weapons systems without critical analysis of needs, capabilities and procurement.

The Threat from National Debt

A bipartisan group of Senators is currently discussing a way to avoid this fiscal sword of Damocles but at the moment there is little movement towards a compromise. Interestingly much of the debate seems to revolve around how the proposed colossal cuts to defence spending will gut the US armed forces. Few, if any, are discussing how excessive US federal spending is becoming a national security threat in itself despite the supposed obsession of the GOP with the deficit and national debt.

The reality of the matter, as any accounting major could tell you, is that American policy-makers have abused the hegemonic position of the US dollar in the global political-economy by borrowing from international markets and issuing Treasury securities to pay for spending.  It is a problem that British international political economist Susan Strange identified almost two decades ago. The abuse of American dollar hegemony enabled American politicians to avoid tax increases, while increasing spending on defence and domestic programmes since the 1960s.[2] The US is now financially dependent on states, like China, that are certainly strategic competitors and potentially future enemies. As defence analyst John Hulsman put it pretending that the China debt issue 'is not a serious threat to long-term American security is to whistle past the graveyard.'[3]

While cuts are necessary to a range American spending programmes, excepting defence from budget cuts as most US lawmakers want to do makes absolutely no mathematical sense. For all the spending on the US military, American cannot impose its will on Afghanistan, Iran or Syria. American power has traditionally come not simply from the nation's military might but from the attractiveness of its domestic quality of life and prosperous economic system. Thus the reduction of America's hegemonic status in the world today is as much due to the decline of good book-keeping at home as it is the rise of other states in the international system.

Democrats and Republicans should come together to negotiate defence spending. The US needs to revisit defence spending priorities and should engage in a process similar the process undertake by the German Defence Ministry, which sat down with the German defence industry to reprioritise spending and contacts - eliminating unnecessary projects and spending more on future weapons systems rather than outdated procurements. Such an approach will ensure that the US can maintain a more responsible national budget and the defence industry can continue to innovate, while simultaneously creating a US military fit for the challenges of the coming decades. But such an approach requires compromise, a relatively dirty word in Washington, D. C.

 Dr. M. J. Williams is Reader in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and is currently a Robert Bosch Fellow working in the German Ministry of Defence (BMVg). The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the BMVg or Royal Holloway, University of London.

[1] Article One, Section 8 of the US Constitution explicitly gives that power to Congress. The President can deploy troops abroad under the war power act but must submit for Congressional approval before a fixed deadline.  

[2] Susan Strange, Casino Capitalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).

[3] Wendell Minnick, "Pentagon Sees No Risk in Debt to China" Defense News (17 September 2012), p. 22.

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