Shadow Government

Here’s How Congress Can Check Trump

The newly Democratic House of Representatives should hold the administration accountable for its worst foreign-policy instincts.

Representatives-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) join other newly elected members of the House of Representatives for an official photo at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 14. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Representatives-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) join other newly elected members of the House of Representatives for an official photo at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 14. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The 2018 U.S. midterm elections were not about international issues. But the Democrats’ gain of at least 34 seats in the House of Representatives gives them a solid majority that opens the door to an important opportunity for Congress to push back against the Trump administration’s worst instincts on foreign policy through stepped-up oversight and investigations.

There will be limits to how much Congress can check President Donald Trump. The executive branch has broader powers and more leeway on foreign policy than on other issues. Plus, Congress has a long to-do list. It will face a major challenge in setting priorities, with domestic policy almost sure to get more attention, just as it did during the election. Nevertheless, single-party Republican rule is over and Trump’s foreign policy has serious vulnerabilities.

With this new opening comes a new risk: Trump now has even more incentives to take reckless and erratic steps on national security in order to deflect attention from increased congressional scrutiny and potential gridlock ahead. The nightmare scenario would be a constitutional crisis at home just as an international crisis with North Korea or Iran escalates abroad.

As a national political issue, national security has not played as big of a role as it did in the four national elections after 9/11, when terrorism and the Iraq War dominated the polls. For the past decade, U.S. politics largely focused on economic issues and us-versus-them identity politics, with national security not featuring as strongly in the political debate. In the 2014 and 2016 elections, Republicans returned to the playbook of the politics of fear, hyping immigration and making it a part of their security narrative.

Trump returned to this fear playbook in 2018, sending thousands of U.S. troops in a stunt to address a fake threat along America’s southern border just ahead of the midterm elections. Important security questions—North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Trump’s risky moves on Iran, and a trade war with China—didn’t feature prominently when voters went to the polls this year. Next year, national security could come back into the spotlight in the country’s policy and political debates, with a lot of trouble brewing in the world, and Trump’s disruptive approach could lead to major miscalculations.

How Democrats use their newly acquired power in the House majority will determine whether they will serve as an effective buffer against some, but not all, of Trump’s bad tendencies on foreign policy. Their actions will also set the terms for the debate ahead of the 2020 elections.

If Democrats are more united and have a more coordinated approach on foreign policy, they will be more effective in checking Trump and setting a practical alternative agenda. But if Democrats use national security questions as intraparty wedge issues on trade, defense spending, or U.S. policy in the Middle East, including ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia, in the emerging primary fight for the 2020 presidential nomination, they will weaken their ability to impact Trump’s foreign-policy agenda.

As John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, senior fellows at the Center for American Progress, found after the midterms, Democrats made substantial inroads with college-educated voters in suburban and metropolitan congressional districts, and posted gains with voters in some Obama-Trump districts in more rural areas. This broadened tent wants Democrats to offer steady, sensible alternatives to Trump’s erratic policies on both the international and domestic fronts. They want answers to key questions: How does the United States maintain border security and live up to its values and promise as a beacon to the world? What’s the best model for improving the country’s ability to compete in the global economy? How do we keep Americans safe without getting trapped in more foreign wars with no end in sight?

The most effective pathway forward would be to seek as much unity as possible inside of the party on key issues like investigating how Trump’s dodgy financial connections may affect his policies toward foreign countries, including Russia. House Democrats can block Trump from issuing blank checks to reckless partners in the Middle East, create smart and effective incentives by investing in diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, and provide oversight on military spending and operations that have lost the attention of the public, including in Afghanistan. Those are just some of the issues where we can expect more hearings and oversight efforts from the legislative branch.

Another step that Democrats could take is to offer a better choice than Trump on immigration and refugees, one that contrasts with his ugly policies that would force a choice among congressional Republicans. A strong majority of Americans support continued protections for the nearly 700,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents as children who were granted legal status by Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama.

In addition, Democrats should work harder on offering an alternative on trade and global economic issues—one that connects these issues to a domestic agenda focused on income inequality and reaching out to voters in rural areas and other parts of the country that feel left behind but are also hurt by Trump’s corrupt crony capitalism. How the new Congress deals with Trump’s proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement will be a key sign of how Democrats will position themselves on broader global engagement. It’s on these issues—immigration and trade—where some of the toughest work needs to be done. This is admittedly a tall agenda. But offering an alternative can pay off, with a midterm exit poll finding that a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s policies on these issues.

Simple math dictates that to get much of anything done, Democrats will need to look across the aisle, particularly since the Senate remains narrowly in Republican control. Democrats should try to build tactical alliances of convenience with parts of the Republican Party on issues like defending democracy and freedom at home and abroad and sensible, strategic defense spending. In the current political environment, building those bridges across ideological and partisan divides is easier said than done—but it is vital to try.

The wildcard in all of this is the most erratic president the United States has ever seen. The more pressure he feels on investigations and oversight, the more incentive he may have to make rash and reckless moves on the international stage, where he has more room to maneuver.

For nearly two years, Trump has made the United States a more disruptive force in the world—and he has laid the foundation for more surprising moves ahead. A key test for the next Congress is whether it will have enough focus on foreign policy and dexterity to work together in order to serve as a shock absorber.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. @Katulis

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