Congress and the 2020 Elections

The highly anticipated 2020 US elections are garnering great attention because they will determine whether or not President Donald Trump remains in the White House for another four years. Congress is also set for high-stakes elections. Every two years, the entire House of Representatives is up for election and roughly one-third of all Senate seats are filled each election cycle. In 2020, 435 voting members will be elected to the House while this year sees 35 Senate seats on ballots around the country.

Democrats are looking to hold or grow their majority in the House of Representatives while Republicans—who this year are protecting 23 seats, compared to the Democrats’ 12—are seeking to maintain their majority in the Senate. Inversely, the Republican Party would need to gain a net total of 20 seats to retake the House, while Democrats must net either a total of four seats (to control the Senate outright) or three seats and the presidency to serve as the majority in the upper chamber. The latter scenario would result in a tie between Republicans and Democrats (and the two Independents who caucus with them) and the vice president, as president of the Senate, casts tie-breaking votes.


What Does Control of Congress Mean?

At its most basic, control of Congress gives political parties the ability to legislate new laws, control federal spending priorities (known as the “power of the purse”), and conduct oversight of the executive and judicial branches of government. As the US Constitution1 lays out, Congress is also responsible for such matters as levying taxes, standing up and maintaining the United States military, and declaring war, should it be necessary. The Senate has even more power and responsibilities. The body is specifically tasked with advising and consenting on presidential appointments. The president is vested with the authority to nominate personnel to oversee federal departments and agencies, to serve in lifetime seats in the judicial branch, and to serve as military leaders. The Senate, however, does not always allow the president to pick any individual he or she desires for those roles, especially when the president is of the opposing party.

Congress sometimes can have an adversarial relationship with the executive branch, which is headed by the president. This is particularly true when different parties have control over each branch. This adversarial posture can result in policy disputes about the federal budget and members of Congress can scuttle the president’s legislative priorities. As US politics have grown increasingly polarized, control of Congress has been a cudgel wielded against the party that occupies the office of the presidency. Republicans stymied the agendas of Democratic presidents in the mid-1990s and again in the 2010s. Reciprocally, Democrats frustrated the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s and, with control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 congressional elections, the party has attempted to serve as a check on the Trump presidency.

Divided Government and Its Policy Implications

The latter half of President Trump’s first term is actually a great example of the pitfalls of a divided government. Divided governments2 consist of one party controlling the White House while the opposing party holds majorities in one or both chambers of Congress. Upon Mr. Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the Republican Party held the White House, House of Representatives, and the Senate. Except for rules limiting what can be passed through the Senate, unified control of the legislative and executive branches of government gave the Republican Party and President Trump the ability to pursue, and to some extent capitalize on, an agenda largely opposed by the Democratic Party.

Since the 2018 midterm congressional elections, however, Democrats have controlled a majority of the seats in the House and Republicans maintained a majority in the Senate. Practically speaking, this development has resulted in a government that has not been particularly productive. The Democratic House has passed a plethora of bills that have not even been considered in the Republican-held Senate and vice-versa. Should the 2020 elections result in anything other than a unified government under the control of one party, one can expect the government to operate much the same as it has since the beginning of 2019.

The Role of Congress in Forming Policies Towards the Arab World

Ultimately, Congress has limited ability to shape the United States’ posture towards the international community, including the Arab world, as President Trump’s tenure has illustrated. This has two reasons. First, the president is the chief executive of the US government and has a great deal of discretion in executing policy. Second, Congress has, over recent decades, consistently ceded power to the president to determine and execute foreign policy decisions indiscriminately. Take the use of military force3, for example. Since 2001, members of Congress have authorized the use of military force specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq and against the terrorist organization al-Qaeda and similar groups like the so-called Islamic State. However, successive administrations have unilaterally expanded the number of states in which the US military operates. In the Arab world alone, the US military has been or is currently engaged in armed conflict Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Somalia, all in addition to the formally authorized hostilities in Iraq. Congress has never formally authorized any of these excursions, but successive presidents have claimed the authority and responsibility to take military action in those places. To date, Congress has been unwilling and unable to rein in an ever-expanding use of military force and the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force continue to be used to justify it in areas not explicitly authorized by Congress.

However, as Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) has chronicled before4, members of Congress do have some ability to influence US policy towards the Arab world5 and the Middle East and North Africa more broadly. Through legislation, budgeting, and public hearings, Congress can press the White House to pursue or avoid certain policies, though the effectiveness of this pressure varies greatly depending on who occupies the Oval Office.

Power of the Purse. The primary source of power that Congress has in developing US policy is derived from the body’s ability to write a budget and fund the federal government. The process through which lawmakers budget federal money provides ample opportunity for members of Congress to express their desires for policy outcomes. Spending bills are traditionally huge pieces of legislation with hundreds of pages of text dictating on what programs government agencies can and cannot spend money. Because these bills are so consequential—a president’s veto would result in the federal government shutting down operations because it would have no money to operate—members of Congress usually add provisions to the bill and dare the president not to sign it into law. Recent examples include Congress’ conditioning aid to Egypt on human rights conditions. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) worked to condition $300 million of military aid in fiscal year 2018 on Egypt improving its human rights record.6 Even if the president disdains a provision like this, it is practically impossible, politically, to veto the whole budget and shutdown the government over this singular issue.

Egypt is one example; but adding foreign policy prescriptions to spending bills is a common practice and has affected any number of Arab states. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have long been targets of this tactic. As Congress is much more sympathetic to Israel’s position, lawmakers have continuously conditioned US aid7 to the PA and PLO in order to coerce those entities to take positions that hew closer to US policy positions. More recently, lawmakers have considered placing language in the fiscal year 2020 spending bill that would prohibit US funds from being used8 to support the Saudi-led war campaign in Yemen. Both of these examples illustrate how Congress can use money to influence US policy. But sometimes Congress allocates money for a specific policy and an administration is not always willing to implement that position. For example, Congress, as it normally does, appropriated funds to support international entities that provide relief and support to Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as host countries like Jordan and Lebanon. The Trump Administration, however, refused to obligate those funds,9 essentially negating Congress’ will by depriving Palestinians of the support lawmakers intended them to receive.

Legislating. Congress can also dictate US policy through individual pieces of legislation. For instance, given enough support for it, Congress can pass a bill to prohibit the United States from selling arms to a foreign entity or can mandate that the United States levy sanctions on another country (see the Iran Sanctions Act10 or the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act11). Standalone bills are easier for the president to veto, if he or she disagrees with the legislation, but if enough lawmakers insist on passing a bill, the Congress can override the president’s preference and pass bills anyway with a two-thirds majority.

Standalone legislation in the recent past has, again, conditioned aid to the Palestinians (see the Taylor Force Act12) and opened Saudi Arabia up to lawsuits by the families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (see the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act13). Typically this process is more effective when lawmakers and the president are in agreement on a topic, but as was mentioned before, Congress can always override a veto to pass a law. Even if the veto-proof majority is unobtainable, the threat of growing popularity of legislation sometimes is enough to force an administration to modify a particular policy.

Oversight and Hearings. Finally, lawmakers can use public opinion to shape US policy. By conducting investigations into the executive branch’s execution of policies, lawmakers can draw attention to the implications of policy. Public hearings often can inform American voters about issues that may not be regularly covered in the media and, should enough voters desire a change in policy, an administration might reconsider that posture.

This year, the House and Senate committees overseeing foreign affairs have held hearings to explore topics like US policy towards Syria, the role of the United States in Libya, and Washington’s position towards the conflict in Yemen. In the latter case, growing public discontent with the United States’ role in what is arguably the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis has slowly but effectively nudged the administration towards less direct involvement in the hostilities there. A large number of lawmakers must come out against a specific policy before an administration will reconsider that position, but hearings and investigations are a useful tactic for members to use to recruit the general public to support or oppose a specific policy.

Regardless of how the 2020 presidential election ends, Congress will play an important, though most likely not decisive, role in formulating policy towards the Arab world. With its unique responsibilities and its control over federal spending, Congress will certainly aim to influence the US posture towards the Arab world and broader Middle East regardless of who occupies the White House.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here

1 “US Constitution Article I,” The Legal Information Institute, n.d. (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/1CODOxp).
2 Marcus Montgomery, “Congress and President Trump after the 2018 Midterm Elections,” Arab Center Washington DC, 08/11/2019 (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2ofnHu2).
3 Marcus Montgomery, “A Looming Collision: Donald Trump and Presidential War Powers,” Arab Center Washington DC, n.d. (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2mM5kws).
4 Marcus Montgomery, “The 2018 Midterm Elections: What Do They Mean for the Middle East?” Arab Center Washington DC, 01/11/2018 (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2nqzINk).
5 Marcus Montgomery, “The Arab World in the 115th Congress: A Review,” Arab Center Washington DC, 30/01/2019 (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2p6Yjaj).
6 Jack Detsch, “Congress withholds Egypt aid over injured American,” Al Monitor, 03/05/2018, (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2p2aMfi).
7 Scott Lasensky and Robert Grace, “Dollars and Diplomacy: Foreign Aid and the Palestinian Question,” United States Institute for Peace, 01/08/2006 (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2ojBLCC).
8 Tara Golshan, “Lawmakers aim to twist Trump’s arm on Yemen – and check his cozy ties to Saudi Arabia,” Vox, 10/09/2019 (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2kDhQ08).
9 Karen DeYoung, Ruth Eglash, and Hazem Balousha, “US ends aid to United Nations agency supporting Palestinian refugees,” The Washington Post, 31/04/2018 (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://wapo.st/2nyzRhu).
10 “Iran Sanctions Act of 1996,” United States Department of the Treasury, n.d. (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2oQnlKf).
11 “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” United States Congress, n.d. (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2C988K3).
12 Marcus Montgomery, “Taylor Force Act: Putting the Palestinian Authority on Notice,” Arab Center Washington DC, 03/08/2017 (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2od9TjH).
13 Ingrid Wuerth, “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act: Initial Analysis,” Lawfare, 29/09/2016 (accessed 30/09/2019 at https://bit.ly/2s0HcFZ).