After Donald Trump appeared to side with Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Moscow meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, Congressional Republicans finally spoke out. Days later, with even senior Republican senators apparently eager to accept Trump’s claim that he misspoke, that initial forceful response has devolved into the foreign policy equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” offered after school shootings. But Congress need not just be a spectator, cheering or heckling from the stands.
Congress has many tools to limit the damage of Trump’s Russia posture; it’s overdue to start using them. We know Congress can do more because – over a combined four decades on Capitol Hill and in the State Department – we’ve been on both the giving and receiving ends of vigorous congressional oversight and activism on foreign policy.
Whether through investigations, appropriations, legislation, resolutions, hearings or official travel, Congress members have a strong hand to play. The Constitution dealt them into the game because its framers knew the stakes. In the words of policy analyst Jonathan Masters, “the periodic tug-of-war between the president and Congress over foreign policy is not a by-product of the Constitution, but rather, one of its core aims.” Congress squeezed funding to limit or end controversial military engagements in Vietnam and Central America, and covert operations in Angola. In the mid-1980s, when freshman Senator John Kerry joined Senator Richard Lugar to pass an amendment compelling the Reagan administration to condition aid to the Philippines on free elections, Filipinos ousted autocrat (and client of former Trump aide Paul Manafort) Ferdinand Marcos. Congress imposed sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa over the objections of a reluctant administration. Congress repeatedly pressed the Clinton administration on the Balkans. Lawmakers unilaterally lifted an arms embargo to help Bosnian rebels fighting ethnic cleansing, which both pressured – and gave leverage to – the administration to intervene forcefully. For years, the legislative handiwork of two Republicans (the so-called Helms-Burton law) tied any president’s hands on travel and trade policies with Cuba. The tragedy of the Iraq War, in retrospect, offers a cautionary example of a time where greater congressional leverage might have made a difference.
Republicans, of course, only recently surrendered this critical leverage to the executive branch. In objection to President Barack Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, Congress intervened through hearings, attempted appropriations riders, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s controversial joint address to Congress, and even a widely-signed letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader undermining the White House. After the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, senior officials were subpoenaed and even unrelated nominees were held hostage by senators demanding access to documents and witnesses.
Not every Congressional attempt to shape foreign policy is appropriate. The most effective policies are bipartisan. Much of what we witnessed on Iran and Benghazi was regrettable, embodying hyper partisanship and inviting dysfunction. But at a moment when the President is insulting longtime allies, attacking NATO and shrugging off Russian interference in our electoral process, it’s essential that Congress find a strong approach instead of allowing legislative muscles to atrophy.
Meaningful hearings are the first line of defense. Oversight committees should press the administration to detail commitments made to Putin behind closed doors and explain what’s being done to prepare against future intrusions in U.S. elections. They should also provide a forum to elevate the importance of our European allies, those the president just labeled a “foe.” Where the administration resists providing relevant information, Congress can use its subpoena powers.
Congress should deploy its funding powers as well. That means ensuring adequate funding for cybersecurity efforts, particularly with regard to the upcoming elections, or attaching requirements for relevant reporting on elections interference in the funding bills the Senate will pass this August.
Legislating isn’t easy, particularly given the threat of a presidential veto. But that is no reason not to try. Additional Russia sanctions, resolutions reaffirming NATO’s mutual defense doctrine (Article 5), or passing the bipartisan Senate bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation are all ripe for this moment. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has canceled August recess. Surely there’s time to address Russia, and fireproof Mueller’s investigation — which remains the fastest and best path to understanding the Russian attack on our democratic process and to preventing its redux. Every confirmation hearing can be transformed into a Russia hearing; many a nominee has been held up over much less and, today, what could matter more?
Members may differ over which of these tools are most effective or appropriate to influence foreign policy, but none should question that they exist for a co-equal branch of government. President Trump has reminded us why.