What would be the main consequence if Republicans win a majority in the Senate in this fall’s off-year elections and retain their majority in the House? One answer is that Barack Obama’s Administration will face some additional difficulties in conducting foreign policy, on top of those it has already been facing. But the shift will likely be a matter of degree, not of kind, for American political geometry operates by different rules in foreign policy than in domestic policy.
History provides some evidence. In the years before the Civil War, administrations generally got approval—or avoided disapproval—of their foreign policies, but not without some perils-of-Pauline adventures. When George Washington submitted John Jay’s Treaty with Britain to the Senate in 1795, public opinion and the newly formed (though not acknowledged) party led by his former Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, roared disapproval. But opinion shifted and the treaty was ratified. Similarly, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams obtained approval for his 1819 treaty with Spain, in which the United States obtained Florida and secured a northern boundary extending to the Pacific of what was soon to become the republic of Mexico. Ratification was delayed by the king of Spain rather than the U.S. Senate. President James K. Polk secured ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the war with Mexico in 1848, but only after turning back amendments claiming much more of Mexico, refusing the cession of California and New Mexico, and banning slavery in the newly obtained territories. The balance of political power between the White House and Congress rarely affected these events, and never did so decisively.
In the 19th century, Congress was seldom continually in session, lessening its leverage over foreign policy. Even so, Charles Sumner, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, foiled President Ulysses S. Grant’s proposal to annex Santo Domingo (the current Dominican Republic)—even though Sumner was a member of Grant’s own party. The Senate, with its constitutional remit to ratify treaties and confirm major appointees, tended to have more leverage than the House, as was apparent in 1898, when powerful House Speaker Thomas B. Reed opposed the Spanish-American War prosecuted by his own party’s President, William McKinley; rather than raise the issue, Reed resigned from Congress and started a lucrative law practice in New York. In 1900 Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan campaigned as an opponent of imperialism, and specifically of McKinley’s active suppression of the Philippine insurrection. But the Democrats lost, and McKinley and his successor Theodore Roosevelt subdued the insurgents, with an important role played by the next President, William Howard Taft, then Governor-General of the Philippines.
The 20th century saw the United States become a great power and Congress emerge as a sometimes significant factor in fashioning foreign and war policy. But congressional opposition to administration policy has not usually run along party lines; individual members with strong views from both the presidential and the opposition party have had measurable influence. When Woodrow Wilson sought a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, 56 members of Congress voted “no”: 35 Republicans, 19 Democrats, one Prohibitionist, and one Socialist. Partisan affiliation seems to have been less important than constituent opinion: About half those votes were cast by members with large numbers of German-American constituents.
The classic case of conflict over foreign policy came after the midterm elections of 1918, in which Republicans secured majorities in both houses of Congress after being in the minority for eight years. In January 1919 Wilson departed to Paris for peace negotiations and famously failed to include any Republicans in his delegation. Wilson had been successful in his first term in rallying Democratic majorities to pass domestic legislation, and he was hailed by cheering crowds in Europe. But he evidently overestimated his ability to get the two-thirds supermajority in the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty. Henry Cabot Lodge, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed reservations. Above all, he argued that a treaty committing the United States to military action in response to a League of Nations vote conflicted with Congress’s constitutional power to declare war. Democrats as well as Republicans urged Wilson to accept the reservations, but after his collapse from a stroke while campaigning for the treaty in September 1919 he sent word from his sickbed rejecting them. As a result, the treaty was rejected, the United States never joined the League, and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1920 received only 34 percent of the vote.
Politicians sometimes learn from experience. Franklin Roosevelt, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration and the vice presidential nominee on the 1920 ticket, acquiesced in Congress’s isolationist policies, including the Neutrality Act, during most of his first two terms. These policies found support not just among Republicans but also among many Democrats, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Key Pittman. But as war in Europe loomed (and with war in Asia already raging), Roosevelt persuaded Congress to set aside the Neutrality Act and support aid to Britain, a military draft and vast increases in military spending.
Then, in 1940, FDR appointed leading Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox as Secretaries of War and Navy, respectively. In planning for the postwar era he was intensely concerned about getting Republicans on board, particularly the 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie and former isolationist Arthur Vandenberg, ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both came around to supporting the creation of the United Nations and prominent U.S. membership in it. Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman also worked assiduously for Vandenberg’s support as he became Foreign Relations Chairman after the 1946 election; the 1944 Republican nominee’s chief foreign policy adviser, John Foster Dulles, was also included in key Truman Administration foreign policy decisions. In his gracefully written memoir, Dean Acheson, Truman’s second Secretary of State, described how he and others wooed Vandenberg with flattery. Had he lived to write a memoir, Vandenberg (a former journalist) perhaps would have said the same about Acheson.
Roosevelt and Truman’s treatment of their congressional opposition was the polar opposite of Wilson’s and turned out to be vastly more effective. It resulted in something like a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that, campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, persisted for two decades. In the ensuing years, the orientations of the two parties flipped: Democrats, the party more often supporting military action and an assertive foreign policy for a half century after 1917, have since the late 1960s tended to be the less hawkish party.
The shift, of course, came as a result of the Vietnam War but has long persisted. The dozens of young antiwar Democrats elected in their party’s 1974 landslide successfully blocked a Republican Administration’s proposed military aid to South Vietnam when it was attacked by the North in the spring of 1975. Speaker Tip O’Neill’s close friend, Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Edward Boland, pushed through the amendments forbidding aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, which the Reagan Administration disastrously attempted to bypass through the Iran-Contra arms deals. Many years later, most congressional Democrats voted against the Gulf War resolution in 1991, and most House Democrats (though not most Senate Democrats) voted against the Iraq War resolution in 2002.
Nevertheless, individual members of Congress have affected policy at least as much as unified partisan opposition to Presidents. Democratic Senator Henry Jackson, without a major committee chairmanship, successfully modulated and opposed arms control agreements of administrations of both parties and, with solid bipartisan support in the House, pressured the Soviet Union to allow emigration of Jews to Israel and elsewhere.
More to the point as we look toward November, the loss of majorities in one or even both chambers of Congress has proven less decisive in changing policy than individual efforts and initiatives. Democrats’ attempts to foil Ronald Reagan’s Central American policies were effective well before Democrats regained their Senate majority in the 1986 off-year elections. The Republicans’ capture of both houses of Congress in the 1994 off-year elections had no major repercussions for Clinton Administration policies. Only two consequences come to mind: Congressional Republicans secured the appointment of a commission that pressured the Administration to pursue development of missile defense, in response to Administration policy that excluded Alaska and Hawaii from the areas to be protected against attack; and the Republican House declined, by a tie vote and despite Speaker Dennis Hastert’s support, to approve the Administration’s bombing of Kosovo in April 1999.
Similarly, Democrats’ capture of both houses of Congress in 2006 did not result in the cancellation of George W. Bush’s surge policy in Iraq. Here, as during the Vietnam War, congressional opponents failed to persuade majorities to deploy the one power clearly granted by the Constitution, a cutoff of funding when American troops are in the field.
During his second term as President, Barack Obama has received ample pushback from Congress on foreign policy, even though Democrats have so far retained a majority in the Senate. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, in league with Republican Mark Kirk, has successfully sought more stringent sanctions against the Iranian regime than the Administration supported (though it was not shy about taking credit for when the pressure seemed to work). In this he has received bipartisan support from the House, especially from Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce and ranking Democrat Elliot Engel, who have presented a united front on policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
During his first term, Obama generally enjoyed higher job approval on foreign affairs than on domestic policy. In his second term, the opposite has been the case, even as large majorities approve the end of U.S. military action in Afghanistan and oppose any further military action in Iraq. In general, Americans are recoiling against an assertive but unavailing post-9/11 foreign policy, but at the same time they appear to be dismayed by a world seemingly spinning out of control—with terrorist advances in the Middle East, an Iran that seems bent on gaining nuclear weapons, Russian aggression in Ukraine, Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, and roiling mayhem of lesser scale stretching from Thailand to Pakistan and back again.
If Republicans capture a majority of seats in the Senate in November, they will be able to ratchet up the pushback at least a little. They will have the power of scheduling legislation and floor business and of subpoenaing witnesses for committee hearings—powers that House Republicans have had since January 2011. Senate Republicans would also be able to reject Administration nominees by majority vote and to extract promises from appointees in return for approval of their nominations. These are significant sources of leverage and could even be decisive on some fiscal and budgetary issues—which in turn have at least some salience in foreign policy decisions.
Republicans could also more effectively press for increases in defense spending—not House Republicans’ highest priority, as indicated by their willingness to accept the sequester’s cuts in defense spending. But it is something they have pressed for as at least a second priority, as witnessed by the defense increases in the budget deal reached by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray (whose home state, Washington, is the historic home state of Boeing, a big defense contractor).
But the Obama Administration already has officials in place in the most important posts—Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense—and, like all Administrations, has considerable leeway in the conduct of foreign policy and the deployment of military forces. Republican capture of the Senate could alter the balance of power and move the fulcrum point of negotiations on foreign policy to some extent. But it will not necessarily alter American foreign policy in a major way for the remaining two years of the Obama Administration, and it is even more unlikely to make a difference in crisis decision-making. One can hope that there will be no need for that in the two years following the midterms, but hope is not a policy.