The Democratic Victory in Congress: Implications for Asia

Robert Sutter
Robert Sutter Professor of Practice of International Affairs - Elliott School of George Washington University

December 1, 2006

The strong victory of the Democratic Party in the November 7, 2006 congressional elections underlined a broad desire of the American electorate for change in the policies and priorities of the George W. Bush administration. In the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party moved from a deficit position of 30 seats against the Republican majority to an advantage of 30 seats over the Republicans, and in the Senate it erased the Republican Party’s 10 seat advantage, gaining a one seat majority.

The implications of the Democratic victory for U.S. policy in Asia seem serious. The Democratic majority of the 110th Congress, led by opinionated and often confrontational leaders Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid, will press for change in a partisan atmosphere charged by preparations for the U.S. presidential election of 2008. In Asia, the Democratic majority is forecast to pursue strong trade and economic measures that if successful will seriously disrupt U.S. economic relations with the region and the free trade emphasis of the Bush administration. Mainstream commentator Thomas Friedman predicts a civil war in American politics over the massive U.S. trade deficit and related economic issues with China. Democrats pushing more activist negotiating approaches toward North Korea, as well as human rights and environmental initiatives, add to anticipated serious complications in U.S. relations with Asia.

In contrast with such dire warnings, however, factors of power, priorities, politics, and personalities dilute the push for substantial change in U.S. policy in Asia. Despite anticipated episodes of congressional proposals, postures, and maneuvers, the impact of the 110th Congress seems unlikely to change the course of U.S. relations with the region in major ways.

Power. The U.S. Constitution gives the Executive the leading role in foreign affairs. In the face of a determined president like George W. Bush, the Democratic-led Congress appears to have only a few levers to force change in areas that impact on U.S. relations with Asia.

Congress does play a direct role in any decision to extend the president’s so-called Trade Promotion Authority, which allows expedited congressional consideration of free trade agreements (FTAs), including those now being negotiated with South Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia. The authority ends in mid-2007. Without it, congressional approval of these FTAs and Bush administration consideration of additional FTAs in Asia or elsewhere are less likely.

Congress also controls government spending—the “power of purse.” This can be used to block, redirect or tailor administration requests for U.S. government spending and U.S. foreign assistance in Asia. Congress has been reluctant to hold back support for the much larger administration military spending requests for U.S. service personnel on the front lines in the war on terrorism and related deployments.

Congressional opposition can hold up and possibly halt administration personnel appointments or policy initiatives needing congressional approval. In its last years, the Bush administration does not appear to anticipate major or controversial personnel changes in Asia policy or substantial policy initiatives requiring congressional action. Congressional oversight involving hearings, investigations, and reports promises to be much more active with the Democrats in control, but such activities usually exert only limited power to steer the course of U.S. policy.

Priorities. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have voiced varied priorities. They tend to focus on such domestic issues as raising the minimum wage, controlling government spending deficits, strengthening job security for U.S. workers, preserving Social Security, and providing limited tax relief for middle class taxpayers. Finding ways to change the adverse course of the U.S.-led war in Iraq dominates the foreign policy agenda.

Against this background, most issues affecting Asia receive lower priority. Finding ways to deal more effectively with the massive U.S. trade deficits and perceived unfair trade and economic policies regarding countries in Asia, notably China but also including Japan, head the list of salient issues, though the Democratic leaders and rank and file members seem divided on what course of action to take. Democratic leaders of foreign and defense policy committees have been outspoken in criticizing the Bush administration’s approach toward the North Korean nuclear weapons program, but they have few concrete recommendations for a change in course other than to argue for more U.S. flexibility in negotiating directly with Pyongyang. Some Democratic leaders and members favor strong emphasis on human rights, labor conditions, and environmental concerns in governing U.S. policy to concerned Asian countries, but others do not.

Politics. The bruising fight among House Democrats leading to the selection of Representative Steny Hoyer as House Majority Leader over the wishes of Speaker designate Nancy Pelosi was a reminder that the Democrats will not follow their leaders in lock step as Republicans did under Speaker Newt Gingrich following the Republican landslide victory of 1994. Even if Speaker Pelosi wanted to push House Democrats to follow her past leanings to be tough in relations with China and on other Asian issues regarding human rights and trade, the makeup of the Democratic caucus and likely committee leadership strongly suggests less than uniform support. Conservative Democratic members have increased as a result of the 2006 election and are expected to be reluctant to press too hard on human rights, environment, and other issues when important U.S. business and security interests are at stake. Many Democratic members support free trade and resist what they see as protectionist measures of Democratic colleagues against China, Japan, and other Asian trading partners. They are backed by recent polling data of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs which shows that Americans are fairly comfortable with the economic rise of China.

Personalities. Given loose Democratic leadership control, individual members in key committee assignments will matter in the Democratic-led Congress and its approach to Asian issues. Because they differ among themselves on key issues, they are likely to have difficulty coming up with united positions in pressing for meaningful change in Bush administration policies regarding Asia.

The public positions of House leader Pelosi and Senate leader Reid are tough on trade and related economic and human rights issues regarding China. Representative Sander Levin and some other members of the House Ways and Means Committee and other economic policy committees also favor a tougher U.S. stance on trade issues, especially with China, and regarding trade issues with Japan that affect key U.S. industries, notably autos. However, they are offset by committee moderates headed by the Ways and Means Committee’s leading Democrat Charles Rangel. In the Senate, the leading Democrat on the Finance Committee, Max Baucus, also holds moderate views supported by others on the committee that eschew protectionism.

Senate foreign policy and defense policy leaders Joseph Biden, Carl Levin, and John Kerry are expected to push for greater congressional involvement in policy toward North Korea and direct U.S. talks with Pyongyang. This builds on the record of the 109th Congress which went on record in September 2006 in calling for the appointment for a special U.S. coordinator on policy toward North Korea and reports to the Congress dealing with the North Korean nuclear program. Now that North Korea has conducted a nuclear weapons test, it is unclear what concrete measures the Democrats can offer that would significantly change the reality of a nuclear North Korea.

Thomas Lantos, the leading Democrat in the House Committee on International Relations, has a long record of vocal opposition to human rights violations, especially by China’s authoritarian administration. This meshes well with the views of Representative Pelosi but is at odds with the large number of Democratic members who have joined various working groups designed to foster pragmatic exchanges with and more informed and effective U.S. policy toward China. On the other hand, Mr. Lantos also has played a prominent and constructive role in recent congressional exchanges involving China. On balance, these groups moderate the congressional tendency to engage in “China bashing” seen during annual congressional debates in the 1990s on China’s trading status with the United States.


Although a U.S. economic recession—or a massive government crackdown, military confrontation, or other unanticipated development in Asia—could substantially change U.S. policy, prevailing circumstances argue for only modest change in U.S. policy toward Asia as a result of the Democratic victory in 2006. The anticipated lapse of Trade Promotion Authority places pending free trade agreements in Asia in jeopardy. China’s massive trade and foreign exchange surpluses and perceived unfair currency and trading practices will generate legislation and other actions to apply pressure on the Bush administration to toughen the U.S. approach to China, but probably will fall short of forcing significant protectionist measures against China. Trade issues with Japan probably will remain overshadowed by more important disputes with China.

An increase in congressional rhetoric and posturing against Chinese human rights violations and other practices offending U.S. norms will be balanced by growing congressional interest in working pragmatically with China in study groups and exchanges. Sharp criticism of the Bush administration’s failure to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will be matched with stronger congressional oversight pressing for greater flexibility in U.S. negotiations including direct talks with Pyongyang but offering no formula for changing the grim reality of a nuclear North Korea.

Any congressional interest in pressing the Bush administration to increase support for Taiwan despite China’s objections will be offset by the turbulent political situation in Taiwan in the last years of the administration of President Chen Shui-bian, and the fracturing of the Taiwan lobby in Washington as a result of partisan and divisive politics in Taiwan. Human rights concerns will deepen congressional antipathy to the military regime in Burma and could complicate Bush administration efforts to beef up foreign assistance, military exchanges, and other support for Indonesia, which is emerging, sometimes slowly and haltingly, from authoritarianism to democracy.