US Congress isn’t “stepping up” on foreign policy so much as sticking to a decades-old policy status quo.
President Donald Trump just signed into law a bill reinforcing sanctions on Russia. And, for a brief time, Congress seemed ready to revisit the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) — a 2001 law that significantly increased the president’s war powers. Just recently, Speaker Paul Ryan stripped the amendment, for now putting an end to the prospect of revisiting the contested law. In July, both chambers of Congress passed resolutions reaffirming US commitment to NATO. And earlier, a Senate measure blocking part of the Saudi arms deal almost passed with bipartisan support. Some think Congress is stepping up on foreign policy and even defending international law. Can these congressional acts actually counteract the administration’s foreign policy initiatives?
The answer is no. While these actions may show Congress’ hesitance to endorse some of Trump’s policies, they are unlikely to have a meaningful impact on US foreign policy in the long run and even less impact on the future of international law.
Congressional involvement in foreign policy is not new. The legislative branch has used its influence to varying degrees with its oversight and spending powers. During the Obama administration, Congress significantly cut foreign aid, tried to block the Iran nuclear deal and passed legislation allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia (overriding President Barack Obama’s veto).
So, Congress’ recent involvement is not indicative of a drastic change in its influence on US foreign policy. Nor is it a commitment to resisting Trump’s departure from the conventional norms and international laws. President Trump signing the bill limiting his own ability to alter sanctions on Russia comes in the midst of a special investigation into his presidential campaign’s ties with Russia, which will contribute to the administration’s rhetoric that not only does Trump not have any ties with Russia, but instead is willing to take a strong stance on the issue. And the bipartisan support the bill attracted further speaks to the necessity congressional Republicans must have been feeling to appear strong on Russia.
The House and Senate resolutions affirming US commitment to Article 5 of NATO after President Trump’s wavering statements in Europe are simply inconsequential. Despite campaign promises to the opposite, Trump acknowledged commitment to NATO’s Article 5 before the House resolution was introduced. And not only do these resolutions not contradict the president’s stated policy, they also are not binding. Both simply express “the sense” of Congress. While not entirely meaningless (other nations do take note), these resolutions impose no restrictions. That’s also why they’re easier to pass—they only have to go through the chamber they apply to. Ultimately, President Trump — the commander-in-chief of the armed forces — has authority over US military actions and can easily choose whether to heed the sense of Congress.
Finally, a measure aimed at blocking part of a $500-million arms sale to Saudi Arabia fell short of passing despite broad bipartisan support. This renders the measure virtually meaningless; to the contrary, the failure of the bill demonstrates the strength of America-Saudi relations in spite of Saudi culpability in human rights violations in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
Even the impact Congress can have on foreign policy with its spending powers is limited. Trump’s proposed cuts to the State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) met firm opposition in the Senate. But Congress’ power over the fiscal agenda does not prevent the president — and by extension, the leadership at the State Department or USAID — from leading those organizations in a way that undermines their normal functions. And though unlikely, since funding for the State Department or USAID makes up a very small part of the spending bill, President Trump can still use his veto power to nix anything Congress passes that he finds unpalatable.
Speaker Ryan’s latest move to strip the amendment revoking the AUMF is perhaps the strongest indicator that Congress is not taking on an unusually active role in foreign policy. Since AUMF provides the legal grounds for the expansion of the president’s war powers, its revocation would have severely limited the president’s legal ability to wage war. Congress had two choices: Either strip the amendment, which meant that the AUMF as we know it will still be in place and Congress won’t have had any impact, or let it go to the floor, where Republicans will have to engage in partisan debate about President Trump’s war powers with Democrats.
By picking the former without even allowing a debate on the subject, the speaker of the House showed that Congress isn’t “stepping up” on foreign policy so much as sticking to a decades-old policy status quo. And it’s not defending America’s commitment to international law either. The only legislation passed so far are those that uphold Obama-era sanctions and specific military commitments, including those to allies with problematic human rights records — hardly a new victory for democracy and international law.
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.