February 4, 2014
Event: Foreign Policy in Congress
Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), President , the Lugar Center
Congressman Norm Dicks (D-WA), Senior Policy Advisor, Van Ness Feldman
The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 not only shook and crippled economies around the world; it drastically shifted the focus of U.S. policy from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to monetary issues at home. The Financial Crisis, accompanied by the rise of the Tea Party movement, has resulted in a new wave of politicians, running almost solely around the debt ceiling, deficits, unemployment, and other domestic issues. However, now, in light of President Obama’s State of the Union Address, it seems that foreign policy will again play a central role in the U.S. Congress. Dismantling Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and approving two massive trade deals with Pacific and European powers will all be important topics that will come before House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees in 2014. They can also drastically alter the country’s future trajectory. However, given the severe lack of bipartisan cooperation in today’s Congress, and given the lack of public awareness and discourse surrounding these topics, can Congress be counted on to analyze these rising crises and initiatives diligently and fairly?
Speaking in Washington, DC, Richard Lugar and Norm Dicks, former policymakers who served in the Senate and House respectively, both expressed concern at what they see as a declining interest in foreign policy among members of Congress. As constituents around the country have become more concerned with jobs, the debt ceiling, and other domestic issues, Sen. Lugar claims that the desire among politicians to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee has sharply declined. In order to demonstrate commitment to their constituent’s concerns politicians today devote minimal attention and effort to foreign policy issues, only attending hearings for the segments in which they are required to speak, and then diverting the majority of their attention to the economy and local issues – it is important to note too that representatives have been spending less time legislating and holding hearings and more time with constituent services and media appearances.
This lack of interest in and focus on foreign policy were also noted by Congressman Dick, who was deeply troubled that the most aggressive actions in foreign policy taken during Obama’s presidency were centered on the September 11 attacks in Benghazi and the Justice Department’s operation, Fast and Furious. Although he doesn’t doubt that committee members are still being well briefed in closed sessions, he is alarmed by the lack of public debate and discussion around key policy topics and the seemingly never ending struggle between Congress and the Administration. The fact that some representatives are currently pushing for further sanctions on Iran while U.S. lead negotiations are currently in progress further illustrates the misaligned interests of the current Congress in Congressman Dick’s view. Instead of directing their efforts at undermining foreign negotiations already underway, congressional committees should be working to quickly confirm ambassadors – now that Max Baucus has been approved to serve in China, an equally speedy process should be put in place to confirm the new ambassador to Russia– and to also pursue new foreign policy issues such as cyber threats.
Both speakers agreed that what is really needed in Congress is a willingness for members to address tough issues, make unpopular decisions, and work across the isles with their fellow representatives and exchange ideas with them. After the long expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is understandable that the public has an unfavorable view of Iran and is adamant about the U.S. not becoming involved in Syria. However, in these tough cases inaction is not an option, regardless if that is the popular choice. It is also the responsibility of U.S. congressional leaders to explain the interests that the U.S. has overseas. In today’s interconnected and constantly changing world, it is crucial that the U.S. and any country that hopes to successful stay constantly engaged in global affairs, accessing changes as they happen and pursuing policies that allow them to succeed in the present and future. Congress needs to reengage in foreign policy. With crises threatening U.S. interests in the Middle East, new markets emerging in East Asia, and cyber threats from abroad becoming an increasing threat to national security, Congress can’t afford to do nothing.