Spotlight - The 117th Congress and Southeast Asia: October 13, 2022

With the midterm elections just a few weeks away and about three months left in its term, the 117th Congress has little time on its calendar to pass legislation beyond those critical for the continued operation of the federal government, such as a possible omnibus appropriations act or the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 (NDAA 2023, H.R. 7900). In addition, depending on the outcome of the midterm elections, the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress could either push to pass more legislation before their terms in office end, or resist such efforts.

The 117th Congress has passed a few bills that have become public law which contain provisions pertaining to Southeast Asia. These include the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 (NDAA 2022, P.L. 117-81), the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 (P.L. 117-103), and the Honoring our PACT Act (P.L. 117-168). However, to date, the 117th Congress has not passed any stand-alone legislation about Southeast Asian nations or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The House of Representatives has passed more than 10 bills regarding U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, but none of those bills have made it out of the committees of jurisdiction in the Senate. The Senate has passed two bills related to Southeast Asia, which similarly await action by the committees of jurisdiction in the House. Of these pending bills, only a couple appear to have a possibility of becoming law.

Laws Containing Provisions Regarding Southeast Asia

The NDAA 2022 includes section 6509, “Strategy for Engagement with Southeast Asia and ASEAN,” as well as other provisions pertaining to specific Southeast Asian nations. Section 6509 required the secretary of state to “develop and submit to the appropriate congressional committees a comprehensive strategy for engagement” with Southeast Asia and ASEAN within 180 days of enactment. The strategy was to include a “statement of enduring United States interests in Southeast Asia and a description of efforts to bolster the effectiveness of ASEAN,” as well as a description of efforts to “deepen and expand Southeast Asian alliances, partnerships, and multilateral engagements.”

Section 6510 of the NDAA 2022 required several top administration officials to brief selected congressional committees “regarding actions taken by the United States Government to further United States policy and security objectives in Burma (officially known as the ‘Republic of the Union of Myanmar’).” Such briefings were conducted, but may not have satisfied some members of Congress, particularly in the House.

Section 1245 authorized the secretary of defense to “carry out a cooperative program with the Ministry of Defense of Vietnam and other entities of the Government of Vietnam to assist in accounting for Vietnamese personnel missing in action.” This authority expires on October 1, 2026. Such a program is underway, under the Department of Defense.

Pending Legislation Which May Become Law

The most likely bill to become law is the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023. Both the House and the Senate have passed their respective versions of the bill, and the two chambers need to resolve their differences before legislation can become law. The House has included several provisions pertaining to Southeast Asia into the NDAA 2023 that are not in the Senate version.

In particular, the House amended the NDAA 2023 to include the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2022 (BURMA Act, H.R. 5497). As amended, the House version of the NDAA 2023 would revise U.S. policy in Burma and impose stricter sanctions on the current military junta, as well as provide additional humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma. The Senate version of the NDAA 2023 does not include the BURMA Act, or any specific provisions related to Burma.

Passage of the NDAA 2023 is necessary for the continued operation of the Department of Defense, providing a strong incentive for the House and Senate to resolve their differences. Inclusion of the Burma Act will depend on the willingness of the Senate to accept some version of the House provisions. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is expected to play an important role in these negotiations.

The other bill pertaining to Southeast Asia that may become law in the 117th Congress is a possible Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023. The Executive Branch is continuing to operate under the provisions of a continuing resolution (P.L. 117-180) that runs until December 15, 2022. The House and Senate versions of the bill will likely contain some specific appropriations for activities in Southeast Asia, like P.L. 117-103 did.

The outcome of the November 2022 midterm elections may factor in if and how the 117th Congress passes the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023—or decides to pass another continuing resolution, leaving the issue to the 118th Congress to resolve. If the Democrats emerge with a greater majority in the Senate and retain control of the House, the Republicans may be willing to pass the Act while they have more leverage. However, if the Republicans win a majority in both chambers, they may block passage of the Act in order to pass a version more to their liking in the 118th Congress.

As for the rest of the bills containing provisions related to Southeast Asia, none of them appear to be likely to become law. The congressional calendar is already quite full with important legislation to pass, and the Republican minority in the Senate has little incentive to negotiate with the House given their hope of becoming the majority in the 118th Congress.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program