Gridlock with a Side of Activism

The Republican majority in the House doesn't mean foreign policy will change—much.

The capture of the House of Representatives by the Republican Party is unlikely to change U.S. foreign policy significantly, for two reasons. First, foreign policy is primarily the responsibility of the executive branch, so President Obama and his appointees, along with career military and civilian officials, will continue to make policy with limited influence from Congress. Second, there is a much greater consensus on foreign policy among the elites of both parties than there is on domestic policy.

In the areas of trade and defense budgets, there might be marginal changes, once control of the House shifts from Democrats to Republicans. The biggest shift is likely to be in the area of trade. Critics of U.S. trade policies in the Democratic Party are concentrated in congressional districts in the old industrial core of the Midwest and Northeast, which contains manufacturing industries exposed to foreign competition. In contrast, the geographic base of the Republican Party now consists of the South and the West, commodity-exporting regions which historically have favored free trade to promote access to foreign markets and which today contribute to America’s modest trade surplus in agricultural products. This makes it more likely that the trade agreements negotiated by former-President George W. Bush with South Korea, Colombia and Panama are more likely to be passed, if the president wishes. Passage of the agreements, however, are unlikely to lead to a new wave of trade liberalization because the treaties are pay-offs to allies in strategic regions. Even if the treaties pass, tensions between the U.S. and chronic trade-surplus countries like China, Germany and Japan whom the U.S. accuses of mercantilist policies are likely to continue.

In the military arena, the Republicans, now based in the South, exhibit the militaristic attitudes typical of white Southerners throughout American history. In addition, the South benefits economically from the “gun belt” of defense installations and factories that New Deal Democrats scattered throughout the South and the West during World War II and the Cold War. That means that the House Republicans are more likely to support President Obama if he escalates the war in Afghanistan further or takes other military actions. And the Republican majority in the House is more likely to defend or increase defense spending than to consider reducing defense expenditures in the interest of deficit reduction. Because the Democrats in the Senate will have the power to block cuts in Social Security and Medicare, while House Republicans block decreases in defense spending, it is unlikely that there will be any significant cuts in federal spending, only symbolic ones. And the opposition of House Republicans to tax increases means that rhetoric about reducing federal deficits is unlikely to be matched by action on their part.

In the area of immigration policy, the Republican capture of the House probably dooms any hopes for comprehensive immigration reform that would include legalization of illegal immigrants. In the last decade, the populist Right which seeks to punish illegal immigrants and secure the border has defeated the business class Right which seeks to further flood the U.S. labor market with low-wage labor. Congressional Republicans may concentrate on theatrical bolstering of the security of the southwestern border, while turning a blind eye to abuses of immigration law by businesses. Notwithstanding business support, it is unlikely that a program of “guest workers” or indentured servants could be passed, given the opposition of nativist conservatives and pro-labor Democrats in Congress, particularly if unemployment remains high. One area of possible bipartisan reform would be an increase in quotas for skilled immigrants, something that is sought by Silicon Valley and supported both by Democrats and some Republicans.

Gridlock in a divided Congress may lead to increased activism by President Obama, who like other presidents blocked by Congress might be tempted to claim a broad interpretation of his powers as commander in chief as the basis for independent action. House Republicans may respond by using their power of investigation to hold hearings about real or alleged scandals in foreign policy as well as domestic policy. Both parties can be counted on to use the next two years to set the stage for the presidential election of 2012, which—even more than this midterm election—will be turn on the public’s judgment of Barack Obama.