This Fight Ain’t Over

Think the debt ceiling gridlock was ugly? Congress is just getting warmed up. Here are eight more foreign-policy battles right around the corner.

The U.S. Capitol stands in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, July 29, 2011. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

While imperiling global markets, enraging the American people, and generally doing little of benefit for the country besides giving pundits something to talk about, the U.S. debt ceiling crisis also brought almost every other piece of important congressional business to a halt for weeks, if not months.

“Just to speak to how dysfunctional the U.S. Senate is, we’re here over the debt ceiling, but instead of focusing on the issue at hand, we’re going to focus on something that’s irrelevant possibly and has nothing to do with why we’re here,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last month when he insisted that Congress not talk about Libya until the economy is fixed. “Let’s not take up an issue that will have no effect on and has nothing to do with the debt ceiling, and take on those issues that will.”

Now that a deal has been struck, lawmakers should be able to return to the other pending matters on their agenda — after they get back from their five-week vacation, that is. And when they do finally return to town, they’ll face a long list of foreign policy and national security issues that are priorities for President Barack Obama’s administration, but which remain stalled on Capitol Hill.

Here are the top eight foreign-policy items currently held up by the do-nothing 112th Congress.

Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images 

National Security Funding

The fiscal 2011 year concludes at the end of September, which means that all federal agencies will need new funding to keep operating. But Congress still hasn’t completed any of the 12 appropriations bills that are required to do so, and there’s almost no chance that this will get done during what’s sure to be a hectic September schedule.

Sadly, this is becoming a familiar pattern: Congress completely failed to pass a fiscal 2011 budget, instead funding the government through a series of short-term measures known as continuing resolutions until they couldn’t even agree on one of those and the government almost shut down. If the budgets aren’t passed by the end of September, lawmakers will once again have to pass a continuing resolution to keep the lights on and to make sure federal employees and soldiers get paid beginning on Oct. 1.

In the House of Representatives, appropriators have already done some work on the funding bills for the Defense Department, the State Department, and foreign operations, but a lot of that good work is sure to go to waste because the funding levels in those bills will have to change due to the cuts mandated in the debt deal. In the Senate, the defense authorization bill will also have to be rewritten because of the debt deal, something that Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) still aren’t clear on. In short, all the national security agencies in the government will have to once again deal with an uncertain funding picture. With unknown — but coming — cuts to their budget, it’ll make for a hectic time. The one thing they can count on is that Congress will likely wait until the very last minute to fulfill its responsibility to fund the government.

Win McNamee/Getty Images 

The Libya War

Only Congress has the power to declare war and only Congress has the power to fund wars — at least in theory. The Obama administration has waged a war in Libya since March, largely on its own discretion (and with existing funding), and after a fit of foot-stomping an unhappy Congress has shirked its duty to provide substantial oversight of the operation.

Despite furious complaints on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration went to war without consulting Congress and without an endgame, the Senate has yet to debate, much less pass, a resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and McCain have been trying to forge bipartisan legislation that would endorse the Libya war, but the bill has never reached the Senate floor. In the House, there’s so much schizophrenia that lawmakers actually voted not to authorize the Libya war — but also voted not to cut off the funding for the mission.

The debate has created some strange dynamics within Congress. Normally gun-shy Democrats have defended the military intervention, while Republicans criticized Obama for abusing his power to authorize military force. Meanwhile, liberals and Tea Party budget hawks have made common cause in opposition to the mission. The president also won no fans on Capitol Hill by claiming that the Libya operation did not rise to the level of “hostilities” and therefore was not subject to the constraints of the War Powers Resolution — a contention that nobody in Congress is buying and that even Levin, a strong Obama supporter, said was “dubious.”

Getty Images


Nominations and Confirmations

It may sound obvious, but it’s pretty tough to have an effective foreign policy if you don’t have warm bodies in key posts around the world and in Washington. There are various reasons that Congress is so often late in confirming administration nominees for diplomatic and national security posts. Investigations into a nominee’s background or politics, holds placed by individual senators looking for some pork to bring home or a concession on an unrelated matter, and general laziness top the list.

Sometimes the problem is just finding the time to hold hearings. Only one senator could make time to show up for the Tuesday, Aug. 2, hearing for Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Wednesday’s hearing for nominee Wendy Sherman to become undersecretary of state for political affairs was canceled because senators left town early. Sometimes, senators thwart nominations simply as a way to criticize administration policy bite — as was the case with Ford, whose nomination was first blocked because senators objected to sending a U.S. envoy to Damascus.

When it wants to, the Senate has shown it can confirm lots of nominees in short order. But right now, several top appointees are waiting in the wings and their seats in government remain vacant while Congress takes its sweet time.


Arms Control

The Obama administration came into office promising an ambitious arms control agenda that would seek to make significant progress toward a nuclear-free world through a series of treaties, agreements, and initiatives. But after the bitter and grueling Senate fight over the New START nuclear reductions agreement with Russia, all congressional action on arms control has ground to a halt.

The administration can rightly claim a win because New START was ultimately ratified. But to many the ratification seemed like a Pyrrhic victory, killing the appetite on Capitol Hill and in the White House for another long battle over an international arms control treaty. “I suggest we move away from the distraction of an agreement like this and move toward a debate over some of the real challenges,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said bitterly after New START passed. He added that a positive result of the debate was that there won’t be any more treaties “for a while.”

Arms control officials, such as Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, promise that the administration intends to push for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty — but no administration official will say when and no congressional action is expected on either of these agreements before the 2012 election. Negotiations with Russia over a follow-up to New START are also going nowhere.

To make matters worse, the administration’s main GOP ally in this effort, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is preparing for a potentially contentious primary campaign and is therefore in no mood to offer an olive branch to Obama on arms control. The drive to “Global Zero,” therefore, is likely to remain off the congressional agenda for the foreseeable future.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Law of the Sea

Don’t worry; it’s not going to be anarchy on the high seas, but the Navy, several successive administrations, and large parts of the national security community have been pushing for over a decade for Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, known in Washington as the Law of the Sea Treaty — which, ironically, has the acronym LOST. The treaty codifies navigation rules and some mineral rights issues in international waters, including establishing the borders of various countries’ exclusive economic zones. President George W. Bush made a ratification push in 2006, but the treaty never reached the Senate floor.

Now, with treaty signatories like Russia and China using the agreement to chart out stakes on the ocean floor, especially in the Arctic, a new push for ratification is heating up. The effort is led by Kerry, who is ever eager to polish his résumé to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, a small but dedicated contingent of Senate Republicans is promising to do anything it can to thwart ratification of LOST, led by Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). As with New START, Kerry and the administration will argue that this treaty has widespread military support — but the GOP opposition will insist it subjugates U.S. sovereignty to the international community.

Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr Creative Commons 

Free Trade

This one should have been simple. Free trade was supposed to be the one international issue that both the Obama administration and congressional Republicans could agree on. But now, over two-and-a-half years into the administration, Congress has yet to pass a free trade deal because Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on how to compensate domestic workers who might lose out.

Thursday, Senate leaders announced they had finally agreed to a procedure to bring the three most urgent free trade bills — with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama — to a vote. Until now progress has been nonexistent because Democrats and the administration want to link free trade agreements with renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which provides aid and training to workers who have lost their jobs due to outsourcing. Republicans, many of whom are opposed to the TAA, want to delink the two issues.

Under an agreement announced by Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Thursday, the Senate will first bring up the TAA, and then the trade deals, in September. Whether the Senate will be able to agree on a compromise on the TAA is unknown. On top of that, in the House there is GOP opposition to the TAA and Democratic opposition to the trade deals themselves, further complicating the picture. If the deals ever come to a final vote, they are expected to pass. But despite some movement, Congress is still a long way from actually completing any new agreements on free trade.



Sensitive Exports

As part of his plan to revitalize the U.S. economy, Obama promised to drastically increase U.S. exports. But to “win the future,” there needs to be comprehensive reform of the rules under which some high-tech American goods like high-performance computers and machine tools can be exported, including to whom they can be sold. But despite its clear economic benefits, export control reform is simply not near the top of anyone’s agenda in Congress.

The national export control regime, which regulates the export of sensitive technologies, hasn’t seen real reform since the Export Administration Act was last rewritten in 1979. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has a bill that would alter the list of dual-use technologies — those export items that have both military and civilian uses — to reflect the fact that technology and the marketplace have changed a little bit over the last 30 years. His Republican counterpart, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), also has her own bill, which is more focused on protecting national security as export laws are updated. The White House has embarked on a process led by Mike Froman, the National Security Council’s senior director for international economics, who is trying to build consensus within the interagency process, but so far no progress has been announced.

Although everyone agrees the current outdated policies are a problem, the bandwidth needed to solve this issue just doesn’t seem to exist at the moment.


Foreign-aid Reform

Everyone agrees that the foreign aid system is broken. Over-outsourcing, poor monitoring, and a lack of cohesion and accountability have plagued the U.S. aid system for decades. However, nobody in Congress agrees on exactly how to fix it.

Back in early 2010, there were a lot of good ideas being thrown around. Kerry proposed in a State Department authorization bill to strengthen the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Lugar made big speeches about the need to keep diplomacy and development as distinct disciplines within the government. Meanwhile, the State Department took two years to craft a landmark Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review that sought to join diplomacy and development together bureaucratically and conceptually. Congress and the State Department had different visions on how diplomacy and development should work together, but at least they were both working on the problem.

The November 2010 midterm elections, which brought the GOP to power in the House, dashed many of these grandiose plans. The GOP gains meant that the money needed to reform the aid system and fund new programs vanished. The budget hawks led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately promised to slash aid budgets. Leading Republicans also changed the terms of the aid debate, focusing on the question of whether the United States should give money to problematic allies and complicated territories — most notably Pakistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority.

In today’s climate, foreign-aid advocates now spend all their time defending their existing programs rather than working on reform and expansion of aid. Meanwhile, the House GOP continues to try to thwart programs, though it doesn’t have the power to do so by itself because its one-sided, partisan bills have no chance of becoming law. The result is a nasty stalemate — a familiar feature in Congress as the country heads into the 2012 presidential season.


 Twitter: @joshrogin

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