Congress, What Is It Good For?

When it comes to foreign policy, absolutely nothing.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

So how has the 113th Congress done on foreign policy? Well, from appropriations and ambassadorial confirmations to immigration and international treaties, this Congress has been an embarrassment. The 114th Congress will have some little tiny shoes to fill.

It is widely accepted at this point that the 113th Congress is the least productive ever, at least in terms of passing legislation, and comparisons to the notorious "do nothing" Congress of 1947 to 1949 have been frequent. But when it comes to foreign policy, "do nothing," or at least "do no harm," would be a considerable upgrade from the last two years of congressional mismanagement of international affairs.

On the foreign-policy front, Congress, primarily because of the Tea Party, has become a body so reflexively combative that the two parties couldn’t even agree on the time of day or the direction of the sunrise. And congressional Republicans’ desire to reject anything that the executive branch might support is now so extreme that any sense of doing the right thing for the country increasingly seems to be in fundamental jeopardy.

At a time when the globe is riven with crises and when members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have been quick to criticize Barack Obama’s administration for its lack of leadership on the global stage, Congress hasn’t been able to carry out even the minimal functions that help diplomacy function in the first place: confirming ambassadors and other senior officials at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Some 46 ambassadors are awaiting confirmation in the Senate, leaving Secretary of State John Kerry to complain, "[W]e’re going without our strongest voice on the ground every day in more than 25 percent of the world." Debt crisis in Argentina? Sorry, no ambassador there. Syria and Iraq in free-fall? Too bad America doesn’t have an ambassador confirmed in Turkey. Russia invading Ukraine? Sure would be nice to have ambassadors in neighboring Hungary and Moldova, but no.

The logjam over ambassadors goes back to continued clashes between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate about Senate rules and patterns of obstruction, which is all well and good, but if the Republicans want to exact a price from the administration for changing Senate rules, they should find some avenue that doesn’t so transparently undermine the national interest at a time of international tumult.

The same inability to manage core functions has been equally on display with the budget, affecting domestic and international agencies alike. And the 113th Congress, and its predecessor 112th, will be fondly remembered for their delightfully consistent approach to managing appropriations. First the House would propose ridiculously deep cuts to everything in government except the Pentagon; this would lead to a predictable stalemate with the Senate; then the United States would lurch toward or into a government shutdown or default amid much Tea Party rejoicing; then everyone would realize that shutdowns and defaults aren’t so much fun after all, leading Congress to pass a series of continuing resolutions that were pretty much business as usual. Demonstrating the same learning ability as Charlie Brown kicking a football, some Republicans have recently suggested that threatening a government shutdown as a way to forcibly shutter the Export-Import Bank might be a good idea.

The 113th Congress’s blatant rejectionism was equally on display when it derailed important reforms to the International Monetary Fund, leaving the United States as the only holdout on that front and lending further momentum to efforts by the Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians to stand up the BRICS bank and to question the centrality of the dollar in the international financial system. How any of that serves America well is a question Congress did not seem compelled to answer.

The list of missed opportunities for the 113th is a long one. Immigration reform? Stillborn. The U.N. disabilities treaty? Scorned because former Sen. Rick Santorum believes, um, it threatens home-schooling in the United States. An administration request for $500 million to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels? A request that is only now gaining a bit of steam because the Islamic State controls more and more territory in Syria while threatening to topple Iraq. Trade? Of course the 113th has been incapable of blessing new trade deals or authorities, but it has also been incapable of renewing old deals like the African Growth and Opportunity Act, despite just having had most of the continent’s heads of state in Washington in August.

All of which brings us to the foreign-policy high-water mark of the 113th Congress: the ratification of four treaties in April 2014 to deal with the impact of pirate fishing on U.S. maritime interests, including the Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries and the Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fishery Resources in the South Pacific Ocean. All four of these agreements are the kinds of useful, constructive codifications that would rate as footnotes in the foreign-policy legacies of far more constructive legislation sessions.

According to a Gallup poll, U.S. approval of Congress currently stands at 13 percent, and a recent CNN poll had 65 percent of Americans describing this Congress as the "worst Congress of their lifetime." Foreign policy used to be the one area where the parties were supposed to minimize partisanship, understanding that sensible internationalism is ultimately good for both parties, the American people, and the country’s core economic and strategic interests. Looking back at the foreign-policy record of the 113th Congress and its insistence on burying its collective head in the sand on issue after issue, one really wonders how it managed to find 13 percent of the population that approved of its work.

How low is the bar? Let’s leave the last word to John Pitney, a former GOP Hill staffer: "If we get through the year and the government is still running, that’s a win."

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