Congressional Update – Week Ending September 22, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

National Defense Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2018. On September 18, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018. H.R. 2810 originally passed the House in July and, due to differences between the language of each chamber’s version of the bill, the legislation will be reconciled in conference later this year. The bill passed the Senate, as amended, by a vote of 89-8.

The NDAA is important because it authorizes the Department of Defense to spend money that will later be appropriated by Congress and it sets forth policy priorities for the department. For example, if Section 1233 of the Senate’s version is upheld in conference, the Department of Defense will only be authorized to spend up to $42 million in support of Iraq’s security forces. Even if lawmakers wanted to allocate more funds for that purpose than is authorized, they would not be allowed to do so. Below are some of the Middle East-oriented provisions in the Senate’s version.

Sec. 1231. This section increases the department’s spending authority for matters related to the anti-ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) coalition in Iraq and Syria from $630 million to $1,269 million. Interestingly, it also amends the previous year’s NDAA and mandates that ISIL be changed to ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIL was the preferred title used by the Obama Administration.

Sec. 1233. As mentioned above, this section amends previous legislation to authorize the department to spend $42 million to support Iraq’s security services. This is a decrease from last year’s $70 million authorization.

Sec. 1651. This section authorizes the Department of Defense to provide funds to the Israel Defense Forces to procure rockets for the Iron Dome missile defense system and obtain the David’s Sling and Arrow 3 Interceptor systems. The authorized funds for these three are $92 million to the former and $120 million for each of the latter two.

Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017. On September 19, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) voted to favorably report H.R. 390—known as the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017—to the full Senate body, as amended. The bill passed the House in June and will now face one final vote before all the members of the Senate, where it is poised to become law. The legislation provides authority for the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to identify populations that have suffered from genocide or war crimes at the hands of either the Islamic State (IS) or the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. The two bodies are also authorized to provide assistance to vulnerable persons in Iraq and Syria and to support efforts to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes against humanity.

2) Public Appearances

The House put legislative business on hold this week to allow for a “District Work Week” that is intended to allow members to return to their districts. Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) cut short an already reduced week and ended legislative business on September 19. With a little free time on their hands, a few of the more influential members of Congress appeared in public events to discuss US foreign policy.

US Development Priorities: Views from the Administration and Congress. On September 19, the Council on Foreign Relations hosted a panel discussion on the United States’ priorities concerning international development. The speakers included Representative Ed Royce (R-California), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Representative Nita Lowey (D-New York), who serves as ranking member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs; and Mark Green, who was tapped by the White House to lead USAID.

The discussion began with a reflection about the three “Ds” of US foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development. While the speakers view development positively and believe that investing in it could serve the interests of the United States, the current administration, thus far, has not indicated that it holds those same sentiments. In fact, the Trump Administration proposed a budget that would decimate the United States’ capacity to engage with the world beyond the arenas of defense and diplomacy.

Addressing the budget cuts to foreign assistance, Lowey discussed the differing House and Senate budget bills so far—$47.8 billion and $51.3 billion, respectively—and sounded optimistic that the two sides could settle on the large amount of development funds in conference. When asked about his vision for USAID, Green spoke at length about the true purpose of US foreign assistance: to provide immediate assistance where needed and build eventual resilience and self-governance in order to end the need for this assistance. Although the Trump Administration has appeared hostile toward international development efforts, members of Congress and leaders in the executive branch seem to be united and committed to ensuring the US plays an active role in development projects around the globe—particularly in places that require rebuilding and humanitarian assistance like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Lecture on American Foreign Policy. On September 21, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) appeared at Westminster College in Missouri to give a lecture about his vision for US foreign policy in the modern age. Though Senator Sanders does not sit on the SFRC or the Appropriations Committee, his proposals for US foreign policy are important to understand. As the face of US progressive politics, Sanders and his positions on issues can have a real impact on the direction of the Democratic Party and influence the policy positions of lesser known members of the caucus. His “progressive foreign policy,” as he described it, could conceivably become part of Democrats’ party-wide platform, should he remain popular.

Sanders’s speech at Westminster discussed the United States’ history of interventionism but was ultimately a rebuke of President Trump’s foreign policy positions. He called it misguided to eschew internationalism in favor of isolationist policies. Senator Sanders also criticized the Trump Administration’s proposal to add billions to the government’s defense budget while cutting large sums from departments responsible for carrying out diplomacy and development assistance. Instead of engaging with the world—and particularly the Middle East—militarily, Sanders suggested increasing the amount of money the United States uses to facilitate reconstruction and stabilization efforts, harkening back to the post-World War II Marshall Plan. Ultimately, Sanders hopes the United States will focus less on the use of military force and instead engage with the international community to foster human rights and economic prosperity worldwide.

II. The Executive Branch

1) The White House

Trump Visits the UN. President Trump and a number of his leading officials were in New York City this week to attend the 72nd annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). With him were Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. This was President Trump’s first UNGA and he gave a speech on September 19 before most of the world’s leaders. It was an unorthodox speech, receiving mixed reviews in the media and on Capitol Hill. For an analysis of his speech, please see Trump’s United Nations Speech: More of the Same.

Trump Meets with Middle East Leaders. Over the week, President Trump met with leaders of states throughout the Middle East. Those who received face time with Trump and the US delegation on the sidelines of the UNGA include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Trump offered some optimistic words after meetings with Netanyahu, Abbas, and al-Thani about resolving the Israel-Palestine and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crises, respectively; however, he provided little strategy for how he hopes to achieve these goals.

2) The State Department

Tillerson in Multilateral Meetings. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was involved in several of the meetings with President Trump, but he also represented the United States in a few ministerial-level sessions this week. The most notable was one with the foreign ministers of the countries responsible for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Tillerson also took time to meet one-on-one with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Afterward, Tillerson ceded that Tehran is in “technical” compliance with the nuclear deal. Tillerson is now reportedly urging President Trump to certify that Iran is, in fact, in compliance with the deal. This only confuses things further as all parties wait for Trump’s decision, which is due next month.

Acting Assistant Secretary Satterfield. On September 18, David Satterfield, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, represented the United States at a ministerial-level meeting on the situation in Syria. This meeting included representatives from several countries, including Arab leaders from Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf. The representatives released a five-point summary of the issues laid out during their meeting. Most notably, the sides agreed that de-escalation zones and ceasefire agreements are crucial for maintaining some stability and laying the groundwork for an eventual political solution to the fighting in Syria. Seeking a political solution to the conflict is undoubtedly preferred, but it is interesting that neither Syria, Russia, nor Iran—the countries mostly in control in Syria—were represented in the meeting. Later in the week, the United States announced a unilateral contribution of over $697 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria and neighboring countries that have resettled refugees.

US Refugee Admissions Program. On September 20, Lawrence Bartlett, Director of Refugee Admissions at the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, appeared at a public discussion at the Heritage Foundation to talk about the United States’ refugee resettlement program. The theme of the discussion was identifying strengths, weaknesses, and potential reforms to the system.

Though President Trump has repeatedly demonized the resettlement of refugees in the United States—and explicitly barred them from entering the United States, though that executive order expires this weekend—Bartlett sounded a much more positive tone when discussing the system in place. He argued that resettlement is a valuable tool for assisting both the most vulnerable populations—like Syrians or Iraqis who have fled their war-torn countries—and the countries that are on the frontlines of the migration crisis (e.g., Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey). He also made a point to push back on the popular refrain that refugees, and migrants in general, are costly to the United States and take away good jobs from Americans. While there are some improvements to be made on how best to help these refugees to assimilate, Bartlett argued, refugees are overwhelmingly positive influences. Importantly, they are the most highly vetted immigrants in the US system.

One interesting point raised by the director regarded the cost of resettling refugees in the United States. While Trump often cites high dollar amounts—including in his UNGA speech—Bartlett explicitly said that the bureau is still performing its cost analysis and has not finished the review. When asked to reconcile the two positions, a State Department official told ACW that the reports “will look at the estimated long-term costs of the [US Refugee Admissions Program] at the federal, state, and local levels along with recommendations about how to curtail those costs, as well as how many refugees are being supported in countries of first asylum and those associated costs.” The same official said to expect the report to be finished in the coming weeks, but that the department is “not able to characterize the reports before they are finished,” which raises questions about where the president got the figures he cited in his speech.