Critical Midterm Election Highlights US Congressional Power
US President Donald Trump Addresses Congress by the White House [Public Domain] via Flickr
The November 2018 midterm election will shape the dominant worldview of the strongest legislature in the world and will determine the future maneuverability of U.S. President Donald Trump, potentially impacting the most effective ally Israel has had among all U.S. presidents from Truman through Obama.
The coming midterm election will once again be a referendum on the popularity of a sitting president — with Trump’s approval increasing from 40% approve to 54% disapprove on October 28, 43.9% approve to 53% disapprove on October 31 to 50% approve to 49% disapprove on November 5.
Will Trump have a coattail effect, elevating the Republican party to midterm election gains in the U.S. Congress, as has happened on rare occasions, such as Roosevelt’s on the 1934 election, Clinton’s on 1998 and Bush’s on 2002?
Or will Trump be an anchor chain pulling the Republican party down to significant losses — and even to minority status in one or both chambers of Congress — as has usually been the case: Obama (2014 and 2010), Bush (2006), Clinton (1994), Bush (1990), Reagan (1986 and 1982), Carter (1978), Ford/Nixon (1974), etc.?
Since 1950, the sitting president’s party has lost an average of 24 House of Representatives’ seats in the midterm election. Such a loss would be the minimum required for a Democratic House majority in 2019 given the current balance of 241 Republicans to 194 Democrats.
The hurdle facing the Democrats in the U.S. Senate race is much higher, since the 35 Senate seats coming up in the November election currently consist of nine Republicans and 26 Democrats — 10 Democrat incumbents in states won by Trump in 2016 and 13 in states with a Republican governor; only one Republican incumbent is from a state won by Clinton in 2016 and there are no Republican incumbents in states governed by the Democrats.
While sustaining the Republican majority in the House and Senate would maintain Trump’s relative freedom of operation, a loss of either or both of the chambers would tie his hands internally and globally, commercially and militarily, because of the power held in the U.S. legislative branch of government — deemed by the Founding Fathers as the “secret weapon” against a potential tyranny of the Executive.
The Centrality of the US Constituent and Congress
The unique power of the U.S. Legislature — compared to all other democracies — was crafted by the 1789 United States Constitution, which enshrined the concept of “proclaiming liberty throughout the land” (Lev. 25:10) (inscribed on the Liberty Bell), by ensuring the co-equal, co-determining and independent status of the Legislature, as defined by Article 1 of the Constitution.
At the same time, the Constitution limited the power of the Executive (President), who — unlike other Western democracies — is not a super legislator, does not determine the legislative agenda, nor the identity of the legislators and the leaderships of the House and Senate, committees and subcommittees.
The natural ultra-ambition of the Executive branch is neutralized in the U.S. both by a complete separation of power among the co-equal and co-determining Legislature, Executive and Judiciary with their elaborate system of checks and balances — endowing the Legislature with the power of the purse and congressional oversight of the Executive — as well as the co-existence of the federal government side-by-side with the 50 state governments. This transforms the American voters into the strongest constituents on the globe, directly determining the fate of their legislators and the level of presidential maneuverability every two years.
Therefore, legislators are loyal — first and foremost — to their constituents, lest they follow in the footsteps of former Democrat House Speaker Tom Foley, defeated in the 1994 general election, and former 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 district constituents. As a further example, the clout of constituents — who by-and-large opposed increasing foreign imports — caused a majority of the Democrat House Representatives to vote against Democrat President Clinton’s Free Trade Agreements with China in 2000 and with Canada in 1993.
The U.S. Constitution provides Congress with the power to limit, amend, suspend, rescind, fund/defund and investigate presidential policies; establish and abolish government agencies (e.g., Congress established the CIA in 1947 and the Department of Homeland Security in 2001); initiate and terminate the development of military systems; confirm or reject appointments to top government positions; ratify or reject international treaties, covenants and agreements; impose or remove sanctions on foreign countries; etc.
An amendment to the U.S. Constitution itself requires approval of both a two-thirds majority in both congressional chambers as well as that of three-quarters of the state Legislatures, a majority which is extremely difficult to assemble — only 27 amendments to the Constitution have been approved so far.
Legislators prefer to focus on district and state issues — which preoccupy their constituents — rather than national security and foreign policy issues, which attract the attention of a slim percentage of the constituency. However, the Legislature can flex its awesome muscle and severely limit or overrule a president on domestic, national security and foreign policy issues when a president acts like a monarch, ignoring the Legislature, implementing a significantly failed policy, or departing sharply from the worldview of U.S. voters.
Limiting the Commander-in-Chief
For example, Congress legislated the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in defiance of the Nixon/Ford Administration, facilitating the aliyah (immigration) of one million Soviet Jews to Israel. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing Johnson to launch military involvement in Vietnam, but later passed the Church-Case Amendment terminating military involvement in Southeast Asia in defiance of Nixon.
Congress overrode Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, which paved the road to ending South Africa’s Apartheid regime. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed by Clinton, but the Senate has yet to ratify it. In opposition to Obama’s 2012 stance, Congress reduced foreign aid to the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt by $450MN. The Senate refused to ratify Obama’s 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA), thus enabling Trump to withdraw from the agreement in 2018. Last year, Congress enacted a bill sanctioning Russia, notwithstanding Trump’s opposition.
Congress and Israel
Being the most authentic representative of the U.S. constituency, both congressional chambers reflect the special attitude of the American people toward the Jewish people, existing since the 17th century’s early Pilgrims. According to the 2018 annual Gallup poll of Country Ratings, Israel is favorably viewed by 74% of respondents, up from 71% in 2017. Israel is perceived as a special ally, morally and strategically, in a region which is vital to the U.S. economy and national and homeland security.
The 400-year-old roots of the special American attitude toward the Jewish State along with the track record of Israel as a uniquely unconditional, reliable, effective ally — militarily, economically, scientifically and morally — and her role and potential in the face of the mounting challenges and threats to the U.S. and the Free World, provide for sustained congressional support of enhanced U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, despite the retirement of a relatively-large number of pro-Israel legislators and the expected election of a few potentially-hostile new legislators.
The U.S. public, in general, and the 2019 incoming Congress, in particular, will approach Israel, by and large in accordance with Israel’s proven and potential contribution to the U.S. in facing the threats of the anti-US Iran’s ayatollahs, Sunni and Shiite terrorism from the Middle East to Latin America, and the need to bolster the pro-U.S. Arab regimes, which have the ayatollahs’ machete at their throats.
The incoming Congress will become increasingly aware of Israel’s proven capabilities (already benefiting the U.S. and the pro-U.S. 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, etc.
The November 2018 midterm election, resulting in the 116th Congress, will determine the domestic and international maneuverability of Trump, including U.S.-Israel relations, which have been transformed from a one-way street into a mutually-beneficial, two-way street increasingly benefiting the U.S. militarily and economically.
Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger is the director of The Ettinger Report: Second Thought: a US-Israel Initiative Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.