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Managing Expectations: The GOP-Led House and Hemispheric Policy

November 18, 2010

Washington is abuzz with talk about a post-election scenario that sees a Republican return to a majority in the House of Representatives after four years. But, unlike four years ago, the president is a Democrat and the Senate remains in Democrat hands. Forecasters seek to predict a policy agenda and the interactions of divided branches of Congress, as well as how a Republican House will manage relations with the White House. Those skeptical of Western Hemisphere policy movement also ponder the future of pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, violence in the region fueled by cash from U.S. consumption of illegal drugs. So, despite sky-high hopes, expectations should be managed as to what a Republican majority in the House can achieve in terms of hemispheric policy.

The Republicans will have the power of the purse as well as the power of subpoena, but they will need to work closely with the Democrats in the White House and Senate to move most issues. First, Congress must tend to housekeeping before real change can occur. The transitioning of power in the House of Representatives is more than a ceremonial handoff of a gavel. For starters, the 94 freshman lawmakers need to hire staff to the tune of thousands, organize offices, and press for committee assignments. Much of this will be achieved before January, but the formal assignment of leadership positions, Committee chairmanships, and Committee roster slots may not be finalized until weeks into the new year. Only then will the table be set and Members of Congress will be able to focus on priorities.

The economy led the debate for most of the campaign cycle, so it is highly expected that it will be a priority for Republicans and Democrats alike. As seen during his recent Asia trip, President Barack Obama is committed to promoting exports under the White House’s National Export Initiative. His stop in India provided for new export agreements while his participation at the G20 in South Korea saw additional talks on trade and currency. Still, the U.S.-Korea Trade Promotion Agreement made no headway and remains stalled. With pressure from a Republican house, the president may find renewed urgency to move this agreement, as well as the stalled Colombia and Panama agreements. It will be tough to pass one agreement, let alone all three, so it will take political will from Obama, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and presumed House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to get all three agreements to a vote. More likely, the Democrats will only go as far as to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which completed a third round of negotiations in October, as a compromise.

What does this mean for the Western Hemisphere? The Americas—like all foreign policy areas—will hurt for attention as administration and congressional leaders focus on the U.S. domestic agenda, including battles on healthcare and economic recovery. Republicans, who are traditionally pro-trade, will certainly keep pressing for the trade pacts and greater access to hemispheric markets, but we shouldn’t expect any momentous change, given the hurdles already mentioned. But, while U.S. leaders focus inward, other countries in the region are focusing outward and moving forward on free and fair trade. For example, Peru is moving fast on accords with Canada and Panama. Peruvian President Alan García signed an agreement this month with South Korea and closed trade negotiations with Japan. Colombia has also signed and approved a deal with Canada, is in negotiations with Panama and South Korea, and concluded negotiations in May with the European Union. Meanwhile, the United States hasn’t concluded negotiations of an agreement since South Korea in June 2007 or approved an agreement since Peru in December 2007.

The hemisphere may also lose out through budget cuts, as both Republicans and Democrats look to pull back government spending. Politicians are quick to raise domestic aid at the expense of foreign spending in times of recovery, which may bring serious consequences to the ongoing security issues in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Without direct leadership involvement in the 112th Congress, the violence that is taking over Mexico and Central America will not be an urgent item for this Congress and the United States will run the risk of remaining on the sidelines. But hope may come if Republicans see the regional security issue as one directly affecting U.S. national security and take action to support the region. During the last Republican House, then-speaker Denny Hastert (R-IL) organized a Speaker’s Drug Task Force, bringing together over 40 members of the caucus that made the hemispheric narcotics trade and its illegal activities a priority. It was instrumental in passing the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act and providing funding for Plan Colombia. Many members of that task force, which disbanded when Hastert left the speakership, have either lost elections or retired and will need to be replaced by new members and the incoming freshmen legislators. Again, expectations of major change must not be made until such leadership groups can solidly form and fully grasp the issues facing the hemisphere.

For the transition, the control of the gavel is the most powerful change. Not only will Republicans take over the gavel of the Committee of the Whole, but also dozens of other powerful Committees and Subcommittees. With the gavels come oversight powers and the power of subpoena that will allow Republicans to investigate aspects of the Obama administration. Certainly, headlines will be made from hearing rooms as Congress investigates stimulus spending, foreign policy, and the transparency of the Obama administration. For the 111th Congress, Democratic Chairs did not request senior administration officials to testify. When Republican Chairs are announced in the upcoming weeks, we can expect that to change. Senior leaders, including those in control of hemispheric affairs at the Departments of State, Commerce, and Energy, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the office of the U.S. Trade Representative will be called before their relative oversight committees. This oversight by congressional committees could bring closer scrutiny over U.S. effectiveness in the region.

A house held by Republicans can bring attention to the Americas and policy action that would bring economic and social benefit to the region. However, expectations must be kept at manageable levels as the Democratic Senate, Republican House, and Democratic White House learn to play nice together. If these leaders can’t interact proactively, expect political gridlock and exhaustive measures to move even the most basic legislation on the domestic and foreign agendas alike.

Brian Wanko is Director of Government Relations at the Council of the Americas.