- Yoram Ettinger
Understanding the Elections for Congress - Israel's Closest Ally
The November 2018 United States midterm election will determine within how much room President Trump has to maneuver. It will likewise determine the posture of the most powerful legislature in the world, one co-equal to the executive branch—and Israel’s most effective ally in the face of pressure from U.S. presidents
Trump addressing Congress in his State of the Union, in January | Photo: The White House/Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen (public domain)
The upcoming midterm elections will be—once again—a referendum on a sitting president’s popularity. Trump currently enjoys a 47% approval (and 52% disapproval) rating according to an October 18th Rasmussen Report; 44% approval (and 51% disapproval) according to an October 14th Gallup poll; and 44.1% approval (and 51.8% disapproval) according to an October 17th poll by RealClearPolitics.
Will Trump be a rare “coattail president” who elevates his party to midterm election gains in both the House of Representatives and the Senate—as did President Roosevelt in the 1934 elections, President Clinton in 1998, and President George W. Bush in 2002? Or will he weigh down the Republican Party, leading to significant losses—and even to minority status in one or both Chambers—as has typically been the case? (See, e.g., Democratic Party losses in 1978, 1994, 2010 and 2014, and Republican Party losses in 1974, 1982, 1986, 1990, and 2006.)
Since 1950, the president’s party has lost an average of 24 House seats in the midterm elections—incidentally, the minimum number of seats necessary for the Democratic party to “flip the House” this cycle. (Currently, the House consists of 235 Republicans, 193 Democrats, and 7 vacant seats.)
Senate (left) and House (right) breakdown, 115th congress
Democrats face significantly higher hurdles in the Senate than in the House. Of the 35 Senate seats on which to be voted next week, only 9 are Republicans and 26 are Democrats. Ten of those are in states that voted for Trump in 2016 (only one Republican incumbent comes from a state that went to Hilary Clinton). Furthermore, 13 Democratic incumbents come from states with a Republican governor, but no Republican incumbent comes from a state with a Democratic one.
Upholding the Republican majority in both the House and Senate would preserve President Trump’s relative freedom of action. However, losing one or both chambers to the Democrats would tie his hands domestically and globally, on both economic and military matters. This is due to the significant power of the US Legislature, which was deemed by the American Founding Fathers as the country’s “secret weapon” against Executive tyranny.
The Centrality of Congress
The power of the US Legislature relative to other democracies stems from the US Constitution, which enshrined concepts of liberty that were in turn influenced by the Biblical concept of Jubilee (as inscribed on the Liberty Bell). It guarantees the Legislature’s co-equal, co-determinate, and independent status. At the same time, the Constitution limits the power of the President, who—unlike a prime minister in a parliamentary system—is not a super-legislator. Furthermore, he or she does not determine the legislative agenda, the identity of the legislators, or the leaders of the House and Senate, committees, and subcommittees.
The US Constitution provides Congress the power to limit, amend, suspend, rescind, fund and defund, and investigate presidential policies; establish and abolish government agencies (e.g., the CIA in 1947 and the Department of Homeland Security in 2001); confirm and reject appointments to top government positions; ratify and reject international treaties, covenants, and agreements; impose and remove sanctions on foreign countries, etc. The Legislature can also flex its formidable muscles and limit or overrule a president on domestic, national security, and foreign policy issues when a president acts like a monarch, ignores the Legislature, implements a failed policy, or breaks sharply with the US public.
American voters directly determine the fate of their legislators, and the degree of the president’s freedom of action, every two years. Legislators therefore must remain loyal, above all else, to their constituents
Amending the US Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both Chambers, in addition to ratification from three-fourths of the 50 States—a majority which is extremely difficult to assemble. Consequently, only 27 Amendments to the Constitution have ever been passed.
The US political system enjoys a complete separation of power among the co-equal and co-determinate legislature, executive and judiciary branches; an elaborate system of checks and balances; endows the legislature with the “power of the purse” and oversight over the executive; and facilitates the coexistence of the Federal government side by side with the governments of the 50 States. This makes American voters the strongest constituents in the world. They directly determine the fate of their legislators, and the degree of the president’s freedom of action, every two years.
Legislators therefore must remain loyal, above all else, to their constituents, lest they follow in the footsteps of representatives such as Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley (defeated in the 1994 general election) and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (defeated in the 2014 primaries). Both were substantially more engaged with national party issues than with the concerns of their districts, a choice that ultimately cost them their seats.
Legislators traditionally prefer to focus on district and state issues, which largely preoccupy their constituents, rather than national security and foreign policy issues. However, globalization has expanded the number of congressional districts that depend on foreign trade—hence the substantially expanded number of legislators involved in foreign affairs-oriented legislation. Another reason for this development are the US’s interventions abroad that began after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Overseeing the Commander-in-Chief
While the US Constitution (Article 2, Section 2) refers to the President as the Commander-in-Chief, Congress can significantly constrain his or her freedom of action vis-à-vis national policy. For example, in 1974, Congress legislated—in defiance of the Administration—the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which facilitated the Aliyah (immigration) of one million Soviet Jews to Israel. In 1964, Congress passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” which authorized President Lindon B. Johnson to officially begin directing US military action in Vietnam. But in 1973 the Church-Case Amendment terminated the US military’s involvement in Southeast Asia, against the wishes of President Richard Nixon. The Clark Amendment (1976) and the Boland Amendment (1984)—in defiance of Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan—did the same regarding US military troops and aid in Angola and Nicaragua, respectively.
President Nixon in Congress, 1971. Two years later, his veto could not stop the Church-Case Amendment | Photo: Karl H. Schumacher, by NARA (Wikipedia, public domain)
In 1986, Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, which contributed to the fall of South Africa’s Apartheid regime. In 1999, President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, although the Senate has yet to ratify it.
More recently, the 2012 Defense Budget included Congressional sanctions that halved Iran’s oil exports—contrary to President Obama’s policy on the issue. The same year, once again in defiance of the president’s stance, Congress slashed $450MN worth of foreign aid to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egypt. In 2015, the Senate refused to ratify the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA), thus enabling President Trump to withdraw from it in 2018. In 2017–18, Congress enacted the Russian Sanctions Bill, despite President Trump’s opposition.
Congress and Israel
As the US constituency’s most direct representatives, both congressional chambers reflect the American people’s unique sentiments toward Jews and the Jewish State. This has been the case since the 17th century’s Early Pilgrims. According to the 2018 annual Gallup poll of country-favorability, Israel enjoys 74% favorability (up from 71% in 2017). Americans perceive Israel as a special ally, morally and strategically, in a region vital to the US’s economy and its national and homeland security.
For instance, in 1891—six years before the first Zionist Congress—431 senior US public servants, including the Chief Justice, the House Speaker, Congressional leaders, governors, mayors and businessmen, signed the Blackstone Memorial, calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.
In 1957, leaders of the US Senate and House (led by then-Senate Majority Leader Lindon B. Johnson) forced President Dwight Eisenhower to abandon his plan to impose sanctions on Israel in an attempt to force its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Israel, however, defused the situation by withdrawing its forces.
In the years 1990–92, Congress (led by the late Senator Daniel Inouye, D-HI) expanded US-Israel strategic cooperation to unprecedented levels, despite strong opposition by President G.H. Bush and Secretary of State Jim Baker. In 2014, Congress thwarted President Obama’s attempt during the Protective Edge military operation in Gaza to withhold $225m that were committed to allow Israel’s acquisition of Iron Dome missile interceptor systems.
Retiring House Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen with Israeli PM Netanyahu, last month
The incoming Congress will no doubt become increasingly aware of Israel’s proven capabilities (already benefiting the US and pro-US Arab regimes) in the areas of intelligence, counter-terrorism, conventional warfare, counter-Cyber warfare, upgrading and developing military systems, groundbreaking hi-tech innovations, irrigation, agriculture, and others.
Despite the above, Israel should not take the sympathy and support of American legislators and citizens for granted. Rather, it should seek to deepen and broaden Israeli diplomatic activities in the United States—especially outside the major cities. In a similar vein, it must approach and establish ties with newly elected members of the US Congress—the staunchest and most reliable supporter of the State of Israel in the United States.
Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger is an expert on United States politics and Middle East affairs. He served in the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC and oversaw relations with the US Congress, as a Consul General in the South-West, and as head of the Government Press Office. His publications can be found at: www.TheEttingerReport.com
(Photo courtesy of the author)