Congressional Update – Week Ending September 8, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Most of this week was spent trying to craft spending bills to keep the government afloat. However, some urgency has been lifted due to the surprise compromise reached between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats. The omnibus bill—a monster piece of legislation that carries all 12 required appropriations bills—was finished in the House of Representatives, but it will not get a vote until later since it passed the continuing resolution on which Trump signed off with senior Democrats.

Department of State Authorities Act, FY 2018. On September 6, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) agreed to pass S. 1631, which authorizes the State Department to spend any money it is appropriated. It is a lengthy bill that mandates certain reporting measures and expresses the sense of Congress that the diplomatic work done at the State Department is crucial to upholding US leadership in the world. This bill is generally only important because it allows the department to spend the money it is allocated later.

Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2018. On September 7, the Senate Appropriations Committee moved the State Department’s budget one step closer to approval. It passed the committee unanimously and, should this bill become law, it will allocate $51.35 billion to the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and other diplomatic efforts. This is over $6 billion less than current spending levels, but it is well above the levels requested by the Trump Administration.

Some notable aspects of the budget include the following:

  • Aid to Israel remains at its traditionally high level.
  • Funding for Jordan and Tunisia is increased.
  • Funding for Egypt is decreased.
  • The Taylor Force Act was added as an amendment, potentially barring US funds from benefitting the Palestinian Authority.

Although it is still a reduced budget, the fact that Congress refuses to cut spending as deep as the White House requested is indicative of the true value of the State Department’s work. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Ed Royce (R-California) said as much when he addressed the State Department’s proposed reorganization at an Atlantic Council event this week. Royce emphasized that “diplomacy matters” and that in order to be effective diplomatically, the United States must have a well-staffed and well-funded State Department. Like the Senate, the House proposed a budget that cuts funding from current levels, but appropriates much more than the Trump Administration requested.

2) Hearings

Priorities and Challenges in the US-Turkey Relationship. On September 6, the SFRC held a hearing to examine the future of the US-Turkey relationship. The witnesses included Dr. Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dr. Amanda Sloat of Democracy in Hard Places Initiative at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Members of the committee maintained that Turkey is a critical ally to the United States, but many voiced concerns about the relations between the two countries, as they have been strained recently. Turkey’s regime has become increasingly autocratic and it has moved many to reconsider US relations with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally.

Dr. Steven Cook spoke on the need to reevaluate the US-Turkey relationship; Turkey has always been an ally, he noted, but not a full partner. He proceeded to outline the increasingly oppressive efforts to suppress opposition to the government and illustrated a number of policy choices by the Turkish government that are at odds with US interests. He highlighted Turkey’s warming relations with Iran and its meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs as other examples of diverging interests between the United States and Turkey. Ultimately, Cook recommended that the Department of Defense and the Government Accountability Office conduct public studies to assess the value of US-Turkey diplomatic and military relations.

Dr. Amanda Sloat also detailed a number of challenges in the current US-Turkey relationship. She specifically cited Turkey’s objections to US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and differing opinions on how to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Sloat warned that if the US-Turkey relationship continues to fray, the United States risks facing setbacks in the fight against the Islamic State and the ability to stem the flow of refugees into Europe. Both panelists agreed that there exists a “messy patchwork” of groups and allegiances in Syria that must be navigated cautiously; for that reason, they urged the United States to push for peace talks between the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the YPG, and the Turkish government. Drs. Cook and Sloat also stressed the need to develop a long-term strategy with Turkey for a post-IS Syria.

II. Executive Branch

1) President Trump

President Trump spoke with two Gulf leaders this week. First, the president and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud held their second phone call in one week. While neither side gave specifics on their conversation, a Saudi news agency generally summed up the discussion as one about “bilateral, regional, and global developments.” This phone call came just one day before Trump met with Kuwait’s Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, and other Kuwaiti officials.

The president and emir met privately to discuss bilateral cooperation and regional developments, particularly regarding Kuwait’s mediation efforts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis. Afterward, the two held a joint press conference. President Trump and the emir reaffirmed their commitment to continue strong US-Kuwaiti relations through such areas as trade, military cooperation, or educational exchanges. Trump also told reporters that the two leaders spoke about the conflict between GCC neighbors as well as the Israel-Palestine conflict. The president gave his usual remarks about how he expects deals to be made and crises to be resolved, but he offered little in terms of specifics. He did explicitly state that all parties involved in the GCC row must stop funding terrorism or else he would prefer the crisis not be resolved—an odd aside from the person who just moments earlier said he could mediate an end to the conflict “quickly.”

2) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Secretary of State Tillerson was very active this week and met with a number of delegates from allied countries in the Middle East. First, he met with Morocco’s Foreign Affairs Minister Nasser Bourita. This meeting was an opportunity for the two to review cooperation between the United States and Morocco. They also reportedly discussed developments in North Africa that are of mutual interest.

Later that day, Secretary Tillerson joined the White House in meetings with Kuwait’s delegation. On September 8, Secretary Tillerson is co-hosting the second US-Kuwaiti Strategic Dialogue. This final event caps an eventful week for the Kuwaiti delegation, which also met with the US Chamber of Commerce and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross

3) UN Ambassador Nikki Haley

Iran and the JCPOA. On September 5, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addressed a crowd at the American Enterprise Institute on Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Haley has been a vocal critic of the multilateral agreement, saying that the nuclear deal, as it is often referred to, is riddled with flaws. She did mention, however, that pulling out the JCPOA is an even less attractive option than upholding it.

Haley’s remarks were interesting because they came just one month before the president must decide whether he is willing to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal. Despite her saying that such a decision is the president’s to make, her presentation read like a justification for not certifying Iran’s compliance. She gave a lengthy speech criticizing the deal and provided information she deemed was important for President Trump to consider before agreeing to certify the deal. It is important to note that certifying Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is not actually mandated by the nuclear agreement. Instead, shortly before the countries were through finalizing the JCPOA, Congress overwhelmingly adopted the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (a.k.a. the Corker-Cardin Law) which mandates the certification by the president. Refusing to certify the deal has few immediate impacts on the deal, but it initiates a 60-day review period during which Congress decides whether it should impose sanctions on Iran (those same sanctions were removed under the JCPOA).

4) Department of Defense

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced this week that it will be participating in a joint training exercise with Egypt’s military starting September 10. This will be the first time the United States has participated in Operation Bright Star in eight years; the biannual exercise was suspended under the Obama Administration over the Egyptian Army’s crackdown on protestors in 2013 (the 2011 exercise was canceled due to the uprising that erupted during the Arab Spring). The Trump Administration’s willingness to engage in the training exercise is just another signal that the president’s priorities diverge from those of his predecessors. For President Obama, human rights abuses were too great in Egypt to ignore for the sake of security exercises. However, President Trump is almost singularly focused on Egypt’s counterterrorism and national security value to the United States, and despite an unprecedented crackdown on civil society by the Egyptian government—which warranted withholding US funds—the Trump team wants to demonstrate its support for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

III. Judicial Branch

State of Hawaii v. Donald Trump. On September 7, President Trump suffered another setback with his executive order—or travel ban—that limits the ability of individuals from six Muslim-majority countries to enter the United States. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals declined to overrule a district court’s ruling that the administration was too narrowly defining the “bona fide” relationships of persons whom the Supreme Court previously ruled should be allowed to enter the United States. As of now, the travel ban will not apply to grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, or in-laws. Additionally, the Trump Administration previously blocked more than 24,000 refugees who had already been assigned to resettlement organizations, declining to recognize theirs as a “bona fide” relationship. However, the new ruling also dictates that relationship is, in fact, a bona fide one and they should be allowed to enter the country. The Justice Department announced it will seek to have the Supreme Court overrule the two lower courts’ decisions.