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The Peninsula

Impact of the 2018 Congressional Elections on American Policy Toward Korea

Published November 15, 2018
Author: Robert King

By Robert R. King

Final results on the 2018 U.S. Congressional elections are still being tallied, and as of November 15 two U.S. Senate races and eleven House races have still not been “called.”  The outcome of the congressional elections, however, is clear.  Republicans retained control of the U.S. Senate with a net gain of one or two seats.  On the other side of Capitol Hill, control of the House of Representatives has changed hands.  Democrats have picked up 32 seats giving them a majority of 227-199 in elections that have been decided.  Of the 11 races that have not been called, a majority appear to be leaning Democratic.

The changes brought by the election may result in changes in U.S. foreign policy.  This post attempts to see what might change in policy toward Northeast Asia over the next two years.

Senate Still in Republican Hands, but . . .

During the first two years of his presidential term, President Donald Trump has been able to get most of what he really cared about from both the Senate and the House.  In the Senate, most Republican lawmakers supported the President.  Two Republican critics who publicly voiced disagreement with Trump—Senators Bob Corker (Tennessee) and Jeff Flake (Arizona)—chose not to run for reelection.  The next Congress, however, is likely to have different dynamics.

In the Senate, Trump’s invincibility may be waning.  The President’s failure to achieve an electoral success in the House of Representatives and his serious weakness in suburban areas and with women and ethnic minorities, may well encourage some Republican senators to consider Trump a liability in their own upcoming reelection efforts.  After this election, some senators may well be willing to speak up and vote against the president on some issues.

There was no single national candidate for any office in this election.  Senate contests took place in about two-thirds of the states.  Senate votes are less reliable as a measure of national attitudes and feelings.  Votes for Representatives in Congress were held in every corner of the United States and that vote is a much better measure of national American attitudes and particular attitudes toward the President, since Trump made the election about himself.

The total number of votes cast in the mid-term election for representatives in Congress shows that some 5 million voters chose Democratic representatives over Republican representatives.  The popular vote in the 2016 Presidential Election gave 3 million votes more to Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump.  This suggests that support for Trump is declining, not growing.  Senators are less likely to be intimidated by or to support a president who may soon be a lame-duck.

Another element could influence Trump’s influence with the Senate.  One of the incoming Republican Senators, Mitt Romney (Utah), who was one of the harshest Republican critics of Trump during the Republican primary in 2016.  Romney is a “freshman” Senator and Senate decorum requires deference to elders and new upstarts are frowned upon in the Senate’s clubby ethos.  Romney, however, was the Republican Presidential candidate in the 2012 presidential election.  He knows the Republican members of the Senate and worked with them in the 2012 election and in other political contexts.

Trump nurtures grudges, and Romney’s criticism obviously still rankled him.  After the presidential election in 2016, Trump had at a much-publicized dinner with Romney to discuss the position of Secretary of State.  Shortly after the dinner, Trump appointed Rex Tillerson to the position in what was seen as a deliberate snub of Romney.  (Vanity Fair titled its story about the meal “Mitt Romney Eats Crow at Three Star Dinner with Trump.”)  Throughout Romney’s Senatorial campaign he studiously avoided commenting on Trump or his policies, and Trump stayed away from Utah during the campaign.  Nevertheless, just a few months before the mid-term election Romney spoke out and discussed differences with Trump during the campaign.  Romney may well be a high-profile Senator willing to challenge the President’s policies when he disagrees.

The Democratic-Controlled House will Not Be Friendly to Trump

In the House of Representatives, the swing of votes from the Republican to the Democratic column is the largest such Democratic “wave” in the House since the 1974 election which came just three months after Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

House Democrats have not supported the Trump agenda on ideological grounds, but the petty bullying and taunting tactics Trump has used to criticize and mock Democrats have left him with a hostile House majority.  The Republicans who lost their seats in the recent elections largely represented politically more moderate constituents and whom the President has ignored or criticized.  Political moderate, women (particularly college educated women), and minorities turned from Trump.  In a post-election speech Trump blamed these Republican Members of Congress who lost for failing to embrace him, while the constituents saw them as too close to Trump.  The result is that the House of Representatives will be even more sharply divided on Trump and issues he champions.  With the need for both House and Senate to approve legislation, the divided Congress is likely to do less than the do-little congressional session just ending.

Foreign Policy Played a Minimal Role in the Mid-Term Election

Foreign policy issues, including Northeast Asia, received minimal attention in the U.S. election.  Foreign policy seldom is a key political issue in American elections, so this was not unusual.  The only campaign issue with tangential international implications was immigration, but this was an issue primarily intended to energize the Republican base.  Clearly the focus was not American relations with Mexico and Central America.  Fear was stoked with a military mobilization and overheated rhetoric, but we have seen little or no mention of sending U.S. military forces to the U.S.-Mexico border since the election took place.

Issues pressed by Democratic candidates were largely domestic American problems—health care, women’s rights, and the Donald Trump’s  divisiveness and lack of civility.  There has been considerable criticism of some of Trump’s foreign policy actions, but that was not an election issue.

Tariffs and trade was an international issue raised in the campaign, but the principal concern was not foreign policy, but American jobs.  Trump unilaterally imposed tariffs which he said was necessary to preserve American jobs.  The irony is that Republicans have traditionally led the opposition to tariffs and advocated for freer and more open trade.  But Democrats, who have been less supportive of free trade in the past, criticized the negative impact of tariffs on American jobs because of counter-tariffs and the impact on American farmers.  As the election rhetoric intensified, however, tariffs declined in importance.

Implications of the Electoral Change for U.S. Policy in Northeast Asia

Democratic control of the House of Representatives gives Congressional Democrats the ability to investigate, demand documentation, and question publicly or in closed session senior Administration officials on Administration policies.  Democratic leaders are already discussing their plans for “Congressional oversight” to investigate Trump administration policies.

But House Democrats will likely give higher priority to a number of controversial domestic issues—budget priorities, health care, environmental protection, climate change and energy policy, gun control, and women’s rights, including sexual harassment.  These issues more directly impact their constituents, and they will provoke disagreements with the White House.

Most of the key foreign policy and national security issues are not Northeast Asia.  The main issue for Democrats will be President Trump’s involvement in Russian efforts to influence American elections, and protecting the integrity of the Muller FBI investigation.  There could also be investigations into Trump’s business dealings with Russian oligarchs and possible Saudi business connections which may be influencing Administration policy.  The Middle East is always a major problem and a number of issues will be key—the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Kashoggi by Saudi officials in Turkey, and the implications for U.S.-Saudi ties; the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the ongoing internal Yemeni conflict; the thus-far ineffective White House effort to re-impose sanctions on Iran; the continuing conflict in Syria; and the complex issues involving U.S. relations with Israel.

Northeast Asia Issues will also engage House Democratic attention.  The most important of those will be the North Korean Security threat and denuclearization.  The House Committees on Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, and Intelligence are likely to hold both public and classified hearings on North Korean nuclear capabilities and the Administration unsuccessful efforts deal with the problem.  The much-publicized Singapore Summit has led to no discernable progress in denuclearization, and recent reports that North Korea is moving ahead secretly with nuclear and missile facilities while publicly dismantling with great fanfare a few older and well-known bases.

Democrats have openly questioned the value and achievements of Trump’s summitry with Kim Jong-un.  Democrats viewed the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit as largely a press event with little, if any, substance on denuclearization or improving regional stability and security.  Trump is clearly anxious for a follow-up summit—despite Kim Jong-un’s hard ball tactics in cancelling the preliminary meeting to lay the groundwork that was previously scheduled to take place in early November.  The House Foreign Affairs Committee will likely hold well-publicized hearings focusing attention on these concerns with North Korea policy.  The House Armed Services Committee is also likely to hold public and classified hearings on North Korean nuclear capabilities and policies for coping with them.  The fact that up to now Democrats were in the minority in both houses of Congress, however, gave their concerns and cautions little attention.  Now with control of the House agenda, their views will be given considerably more media attention.

Economic issues are important for the relationship with South Korea, Japan, and China.  Democrats have been critical over Trump’s unilateral imposition of tariffs, abandoning previous trade and economic agreements because they did not have the Trump name on them.  The KORUS FTA changes by Trump were not particularly welcomed by Congress, which has always been jealous of its primacy under the U.S. Constitution on trade matters.

The House Democratic majority is likely to support backing away from the Trump trade policies.  Republicans in the Senate are as uncomfortable and skeptical of the Trump trade agenda as are House Democrats.  Traditionally Republicans have been leading advocates for freer and more open trade, and Trump trade policies reflect a departure from that traditional Republican position.  If the Democratic House stands up to Trump’s trade policies, it may give the Republican leadership in the Senate more backbone to push against policies that they ideologically oppose.

On the issue of North Korea Human Rights,  both political parties in both House and Senate have supported pressing for changes on North Korea’s deplorable human rights record.  Trump used human rights as a stick to encourage North Korea to engage with the United States (see his UN Speech in September 2017 and the lengthy discussion of North Korean human rights in his State of the Union Speech in January 2018).  Once the Singapore Summit was on the horizon, however, the Trump administration and the President in particular did not give further attention to human rights.

Congress, however, has a stronger commitment to the human rights issue.  The fact that the North Korea Human Rights Act was extended after the Singapore Summit indicates Congress’ strong interest in the human rights issue.  This legislation is one of the few bipartisan pieces of legislation to pass the Congress in the first two years of the Trump era.  That bipartisan interest will continue and will likely be given additional emphasis by Democratic House committees.

Expectations for a Change with Democratic Control of Congress

The American constitution gives the President considerable latitude in the conduct of American foreign policy.  The Congressional role is limited to allocating and controlling funding for the conduct of that policy.  The House shares that authority with the Senate, which still remains in Republican hands.  It is important not to raise expectations of any legislative limitation or roll back of policies affecting Northeast Asia.

It is also important to keep in mind that the House and the Senate are not particularly disciplined.  There is no Democratic phalanx of loyal Members of Congress that will follow their leaders in lockstep into battle.  As American humorist Will Rogers famously said: “I’m not a member of any organized political party.  I’m a Democrat.”  Howard Baker, the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate for several years, said that trying to be the Republican leader of the Senate is “like herding cats.”  Cooperation in congress requires cajoling and convincing, unlike the Commander-in-Chief, who can give orders and expect they will be followed.

Initiative in foreign policy is with the President.  He has the largest bull horn, the loudest voice in the American government.  Trump, the former reality-TV personality, has shown a willingness and skill in using the media to dominate the conversation.  Thus far, however, he has faced no competitors who have real authority or who get serious attention from the media.  The Congressional Republicans have quictly acquiesced in his policies.  Few voices of disagreement have spoken out from Republicans in either house of Congress.

The House, with its newly-energized Democratic majority, can and will conduct hearings and investigations of President Trump and his policies.  His and his Administration’s actions will be criticized, and the media will give the Democratic leaders greater attention because they hold a majority in the House and their action and views do have consequences.  This will irritate the President, and his counter-responses will make for more interesting news stories for journalists.

The disruptive, erratic actions from the Administration are likely to continue.  The President in his press conference the day after the election made a few conciliatory remarks about working with Democrats, if they accepted his terms.  But even before the end of the press conference he was back to campaign mode criticizing Democratic leaders by name.  The next two years are likely to be more tempestuous and volatile than the last two have been as President Trump begins to gear up for his own reelection bid in 2020.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Image of Mitch McConnell credited to Gage Skidmore. Image of Nancy Pelosi credited to Jason Pier.

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