The House committees charged with guiding U.S. national security policy are stacked with new Democrats this Congress, many of whom have years of experience in government or combat. They’re looking to reassure U.S. allies shaken by Trump’s presidency, and are calling on their colleagues to follow their lead.
“We have a responsibility to put a check and balance on the executive branch,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who held senior positions in the Pentagon and State Department under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, and now sits on the House Armed Services Committee. “And for me, one of the biggest pieces of fallout from the president is the way that he has stuck his finger in the chest of our allies and cozied up to our adversaries.”
“This institution often demands a say and a voice, but then shies away from taking responsibility,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a new House Foreign Affairs Committee member and Obama’s former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor. “We’re going to have to take more responsibility.”
Like the other 12 Democrats joining the Foreign Affairs Committee, Malinowski is new to Congress. Fourteen of the sixteen new Democrats on the Armed Services Committee are also freshmen. Members on both committees have held senior positions in government or served in the military.
Rep. Jason Crow, an Army Ranger who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and who now sits on HASC, expects their presence to make a big impact.
“Look at the number of veterans,” Crow said. “The number of folks with real professional experience in this—experience overseas, working with our allies—I think we are able to kind of change the debate and bring that credibility.”
In interviews with National Journal, Democratic members articulated different specific policy objectives. Slotkin said the Armed Services Committee should reduce spending for older military assets, like tanks, and should help the Pentagon pass a “real” audit. Malinowski warned against “unquestioned and unconditional” support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Crow said Congress should either replace or modify the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11.
But all four freshmen members interviewed—Reps. Crow, Slotkin, Malinowski, and Abigail Spanberger—said the United States needs to reassert its historical leadership role in multinational coalitions, such as NATO.
“When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, I fought with our NATO allies—the Canadians, the British, the French, the Australians, and others," Crow said. "It’s a very personal thing to me when I see our president turning his back on … those partners, or maligning them in favor of dictators and despots in other places of the world.”
Last week, Spanberger and Malinowski cosponsored legislation from Rep. Jimmy Panetta barring the use of federal dollars to pull the U.S. out of NATO. The bill passed the House overwhelmingly, 357-22. It now heads to the Senate, where its future in the Republican-majority body is unclear. A similar measure, however, has been introduced there by Sen. Tim Kaine.
“The power of the purse is very potent,” Malinowski said. “And every time Congress approves money for the Pentagon, we are in effect approving military operations that are currently underway. … By the same token, we can deny funding for things that we think should not happen, including denying funding for the cancelation of military commitments like our membership in NATO or our presence in South Korea.”
The Armed Services Committee could include such measures in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act should Trump threaten to veto them. Slotkin said she was “willing to consider exploring” the idea.
“I think that there definitely [are] tools we can use through the NDAA that put constraints on the president’s ability to sever relationships with allies,” she said.
Should future legislation flounder, Congress may take up nonbinding foreign policy resolutions. These bills send an important signal abroad, Malinowski said, even if they don’t tangibly affect U.S. policy.
“I remember when I was a diplomat, foreign governments would often come and lobby me to try to persuade the Congress not to pass nonbinding resolutions criticizing them,” Malinowski recalled. “And I was always struck by that. Why do they care so much if the Congress says something that isn’t binding? Well, they did. And what that taught me is that words really do matter in foreign policy.
“Expressing the sentiment of the United States on important international issues matters,” he added. “And especially when the president is expressing our country’s views in a way that’s so inimical to our interests and values, it’s important that the Congress provide that alternative voice more frequently and consistently than we’re accustomed to doing.”
Part of the challenge for Democrats, Spanberger acknowledged, will be articulating their policy without instinctively reacting to every Trump tweet or policy blunder. Addressing national security issues “thematically” can help reduce the risk of “going down the rabbit hole,” she said.
“If you dig into the nuclear-agreement side of the [Iran deal], or you look at the environmental piece of the Paris Accord, you can end up arguing about nuclear issues and you can end up arguing about environmental issues,” Spanberger said. “But … thematically, what we’re demonstrating internationally to adversary nations and partner nations who may have entered into an agreement with us [is] that we as a country would keep our promises.”