What Lies Ahead: Foreign Policy and National Security in the 118th Congress
The turmoil that played out last week over the race for the Speaker of the House of Representatives is an ominous sign of what is to come in the 118th Congress. The 2022 midterm elections revealed deep divisions within the United States. Far from a wave election in favor of either party, voters in many states split their tickets voting in one party at the statewide level while sending the opposite party to represent them in Congress. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans gained the majority, but with extremely thin margins. Democrats held the Senate, but just barely.
Some analysts have optimistically speculated that this could encourage consensus-seeking and compromise in Washington. Perhaps more likely is a gridlock that will complicate the passage of major legislative initiatives as the Speaker’s race has showcased. However, both realities can also be true. While gridlock and partisan posturing will undoubtedly be seen in the 118th Congress, there are also areas of consensus—particularly when it comes to foreign policy and defense—where progress is likely.
Undoubtedly, foreign assistance to Ukraine will face greater scrutiny. In the 10 months since the Russian invasion, the United States has committed over $100 billion in foreign assistance to the besieged nation. However, both Republicans and Democrats have recently expressed skepticism of continuing to funnel massive amounts of aid to Ukraine. Increased oversight from Congress of how funds are being spent is inevitable. The administration will be pressed to offer more robust justifications for future spending requests. Accordingly, the administration would be wise to make fewer, more robust requests for supplemental appropriations for Ukraine. In the midst of economic uncertainty at home, members of Congress will be loath to take hard votes on sending U.S. taxpayer dollars abroad.
In addition to foreign assistance, the war in Ukraine has brought into focus issues in the U.S. defense-industrial base. The United States is the largest supplier of weapons to Ukraine, sending Kyiv scores of the Javelin antitank and Stinger antiair missiles along with HIMARS, a precision rocket system. However, these weapons are flying off the shelf faster than they can be replenished. In order to maintain strategic readiness, the Department of Defense (DOD) will need to replenish dwindling stockpiles and Congress will need to take a leading role through the annual national defense authorization process to remedy this critical issue. While some scholars have argued that the United States should abandon or greatly scale back support to Ukraine in favor of reserving capabilities for a potential conflict with China, abandoning Ukraine and failing to confront Russian aggression would be both morally and strategically perilous. This is an issue that should allow members of both parties to find common ground.
Tensions between China and the United States remain high, and the likelihood of direct confrontation seems to grow by the day. China policy is an area where there is promise for bipartisan cooperation. Both parties would like to see the Biden administration take a firmer stance toward Beijing. Under unified government over the past two years, Democrats have been reluctant to press the Biden administration too hard on China, yet actions speak louder than words. From former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan, to the spearheading of bipartisan legislation like the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and the CHIPS and Science Act to shore up economic competition with China, congressional Democrats have demonstrated their willingness to take a firm stance with regard to China. More controversial moves such as the Taiwan Policy Act also received significant support from senators on both sides of the aisle in a recent Foreign Relations Committee vote.
One of the first acts of the 118th Congress was the establishment of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party to be chaired by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI). This committee will build on the House Republican China Task Force and is poised to examine economic and security challenges posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The House Select Committee will be far from the only player taking on China as the CCP will undoubtedly play a prominent role on the agendas of key committees in both the House and Senate. This is likely to go beyond just the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees to include the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence, as well as House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees. These many angles of attack will also reflect the various aspects of the U.S.-China relationship Congress is poised to scrutinize. Investigations and hearings are likely to cover topics ranging from democracy and human rights—particularly in light of recent protests, trade practices, and economic competition, and Chinese influence through the Belt and Road Initiative and other investments, as well as the origins of Covid-19.
Over the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic shock brought to light the vulnerability of U.S. supply chains. Lawmakers will continue to grapple with how to protect supply chains from ongoing disruptions and how to avoid a return to the status quo. There is bipartisan consensus that something needs to happen, but lawmakers have struggled to offer tangible solutions to this complex issue. In the realm of trade, export controls and sanctions tend to be more partisan as parties have differing fundamental ideological views on these issues. However, these issues will still likely be on the agenda with continued Russian aggression in Ukraine and controversy over how China manufactures and deploys technologies.
With inflation at a 40-year high, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will have to grapple with rising costs in structuring the FY 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Significantly, in the FY 2023 Omnibus measure, Congress provided $52.8 billion to address inflation, as requested by the administration. An additional $8 billion was provided beyond the administration’s request to account for higher than projected inflation. This funding will cover everything from increased personnel to acquisition costs. The FY 2023 NDAA also addressed inflation, making important policy alternations, such as significantly increasing the threshold under which DOD must seek congressional approval for contract modifications from $25 million to $150 million.
Complicating DOD’s struggle with inflation is the informal deal brokered to secure the Speakership: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) agreed to cap discretionary spending at FY 2022 levels. This would mean approximately $130 billion less than the FY 2023 level, and a possible $75 billion drop in defense spending unless DOD is exempt. Statements by members of the House Freedom Caucus suggest this is not the case. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a powerful Freedom Caucus member, suggested on Fox News Sunday that military spending should be “on the table.” With inflationary pressures being felt across the government, this would have serious impacts on Pentagon spending at a time when the threat of a military confrontation with adversaries such as Russia and China is a distinct possibility. Many House Republicans, including top House Appropriator Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), have said that she will not support cutting national defense. These early signs of deep divisions within the House Republican Conference will make coming to resolution on FY 2024 spending measures to avert a government shutdown extremely challenging.
The appropriations process has not gone through regular order in over a decade. With divided control in Congress, appropriations bills will be a key area of contention between the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate. As a result, expect delays in the process, continuing resolutions, and negotiations up the deadline. These tensions were previewed with the prolonged struggle to reach agreement on top line numbers for defense and non-defense spending for the FY 2023 omnibus. While continuing resolutions are preferable to a return to the brinksmanship of a government shutdowns, they are still far from perfect. Continuing resolutions introduce uncertainty in planning for long-term U.S. foreign policy and defense goals.
One important development that could positively impact the prospects of a more regular appropriations process is the vote that took place among the House Republican Conference to sustain congressionally directed spending—colloquially known as “earmarks”—by a vote of 158–52. Following a decade-long ban, earmarks were reinstated at the beginning of the 117th Congress. This type of spending gives members an incentive to avoid continuing resolutions and pass appropriations measures in a timely manner to ensure that projects of importance to them are funded.
Perhaps where the greatest political brinkmanship will be seen is the impending fight over increasing the debt ceiling, which many economists project will be reached early this year. If Congress fails to deal with the debt ceiling before the end of the year, this could become a major point of tension. The last time Congress balked on raising the debt ceiling, the U.S. credit rating was downgraded—this has significant implications for U.S. economic and political influence on world stage. In negotiations with House Freedom Caucus holdouts, Speaker McCarthy agreed to tie an increase in the debt limit to spending cuts. This compromise, in addition to President Trump’s urging to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip, will make coming to a resolution with the Democratic controlled Senate extremely difficult. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) has urged members to begin negotiations now, well ahead of when an increase to the debt ceiling will be needed, to avoid a dramatic standoff. However, Congress routinely waits until things are down to the wire to address critical issues.
The past week has hardly inspired confidence in the ability of Congress and the administration to govern over the next two years. As the presidential elections draw nearer, the situation is unlikely to improve. The slim House majority will allow for a small group of members to cause a great deal of disruption and act as spoilers. Republicans and Democrats will be increasingly hesitant to come together on many issues with the politics of what will undoubtedly be a heated looming presidential race. For the sake of the country, hopefully there will be enough will to find common ground on these key national security and foreign policy issues, but only time will tell.
Elizabeth Hoffman is the director of congressional and government affairs and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Madeline Clough is associate director for congressional and government affairs at CSIS. Christian Hyde is the program coordinator for congressional and government affairs at CSIS. Michael Buttner is a program coordinator for congressional and government affairs at CSIS.