The focus in Washington this week was the mid term elections that saw Obama’s political allies take a beating.
This week’s Monitor Analysis looks at the election and how it will impact what happens in America politically. We look at how Obama and Congress will likely interact in the next two years, the 2016 presidential outlook, and the impact of money in politics.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS says that with the elections behind America, Congress needs to review defense spending in light of the recent developments overseas. They note, “With the midterm elections passed, the 113th Congress returns to conclude with a lame duck session starting on November 12. Since Congress recessed on September 19, the United States conducted its first air strikes in Syria, U.S. and Afghan officials signed a bilateral security agreement, and Ebola reached the United States. With this security environment as the backdrop, the next six months harbor significant budget events that will need to be tackled by both the outgoing and incoming congresses.”
The Heritage Foundation looks at the decline in spending on contingency operations in the war on terror and how the money has been diverted to other defense spending. They note, “As OCO spending has declined under the Obama Administration, the passage of the Budget Control Act has created competing pressure to use the OCO account to fund other Defense Department activities. This approach is not fiscally responsible. Instead of jeopardizing the nation’s fiscal well-being through accounting gimmicks, Congress should increase the defense top line to fund all national defense requirements and seek fiscal savings by reforming the key drivers of spending and debt: entitlements.”
The Center for Security Policy looks at Obama’s tattered Syria/Iraq policy. They conclude, “The evidence is mounting that the president’s strategy is an utter failure and is undermining American credibility. It is crucial after the election that President Obama approve a much tougher approach to defeat the Islamic State, bring Iraqi Sunnis into the government, and prevent non-Islamist rebels in Syria from being wiped out. The urgent need for a better Iraq/Syria strategy is a compelling reason why Mr Obama must shake up his National Security Council staff after the election to bring in more competent advisors who will present him with insightful, hard-hitting policy options that are divorced from U.S. domestic politics.”
The Washington Institute looks at the long term commitment it will take to defeat ISIS. They conclude, “In taking on ISIS, then, the United States has entered a new phase of a struggle that predates 9/11 and from which there is no near-term exit. And even if the United States succeeds in defeating ISIS, as it did AQI before it, ISIS’s progeny and other jihadist groups are likely to remain part of the Middle East landscape and to threaten U.S. interests and allies there for years to come. Until the United States and its Muslim-majority allies and partners can figure out how to dampen the appeal of the jihadist ideology that animates ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other such groups, there will be no quick “end game” or “exit strategy” for this struggle. The United States will need to remain militarily engaged in the region, one way or another, for years to come. For as the Obama administration, like prior administrations, has learned the hard way, “if you don’t visit the Middle East, it will visit you.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at a potential Iranian nuclear deal, the removal of sanctions, and the reentry of major oil companies into Iran. They conclude, “There is no doubt that a long-term nuclear deal with Iran would create interesting intricacies in world energy markets. However, other major oil and gas producers in the Middle East may not need to be too concerned about rising Persia—at least not in the short term. Even if an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is reached, it would be premature to predict that the oil and gas markets will be immediately flooded with new supplies from that part of the world. Many technical and legislative bottlenecks remain. Iran might get some speedy concessions, but these are unlikely to reverse the oil and gas production and investment realities in the country, given that oil and gas projects require long-term commitments lasting decades. Furthermore, the removal of sanctions, especially U.S. sanctions, is a lengthy and complex process. Oil companies will also have to assess whether the new contract arrangements are enticing enough to commit valuable capital.”
The German Marshall Fund looks at the growing tensions off the coast of Cyprus as competing nations look at offshore energy reserves. They conclude, “Turkey’s decision to escalate existing disputes by the dispatch of warships seems calculated to torpedo the already difficult Cyprus settlement talks and its own problematic EU membership negotiations. Cyprus’s response, which was particularly harsh, will make a return to the negotiating table even more difficult. The EU, the United States, the United Nations, the United Kingdom and, indeed, Russia should exercise their leverage with the parties to wind down tensions. This will reassure investors and give a chance for stalled diplomatic processes to address the underlying causes of conflict.”
How the Republican Wins will Impact America
The Republican wave that swept America on Tuesday basically left the Democrats only controlling the White House. Although some races are undecided, it looks like the Republicans not only won control of the Senate, they maintained control of the House, and extended their control of the states, with two thirds of the state governors being Republican. Republicans also control at least 66 of the 98 state legislative bodies.
To understand how this election will impact governance, we must understand the chemistry of American government. The American president is constitutionally empowered to execute laws passed by Congress and conduct foreign and military affairs. Congress passes laws and the budget.
In the 1990s, when the GOP won the Congress while Clinton was president, the shared constitutional powers forced Clinton and Congress to compromise. The result was some reform legislation and a balanced budget.
Obama, however, is not like Clinton. Obama has no legislative skills, which means he is incapable of getting legislation passed (something he was even incapable of when the Democrats controlled Congress). And, unlike Clinton, he is more ideological and less willing to compromise. He displayed this during his press conference the day after the election, when he indicated he would continue to press his agenda.
“Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign,” Obama said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll take some actions that some in Congress will not like,” he said.
This inability for Obama to work with Congress has led to Obama governing through executive orders and regulations promulgated by the bureaucracy. With a Senate controlled by Democrats, he was able to operate as they blocked legislation and budgets passed by the Republican House.
With a Republican Senate, this will change. And, although the Senate minority does have the right to filibuster legislation, the Republican Congress does have two tools that they will undoubtedly use. They are the Budget Reconciliation Bill and the Congressional Review Act of 1996. Both can be passed with a simple Senate majority and can severely impact some of Obama’s actions.
The Budget Reconciliation Bill allows funding of the government without the threat of a filibuster derailing it. It was used by current Senate Majority Leader Reid to pass Obamacare, when it was obvious that Republicans could kill it with a filibuster.
With this piece of legislation, Congress can specify exactly how money will be spent by the Administration. For instance, in order to stop Obamaa’s planned immigration amnesty, Congress can pass the budget specifically limiting how much (if any) can be spent on issuing the documentation that allows someone to remain in the US. It can also prevent an agency from spending money on enforcing certain regulations.
Obviously, Obama can veto a budget he disagrees with, precipitating a government shutdown. This was done last year by Obama in hopes that the shutdown would damage the Republican’s chances of winning the mid term elections (which they obviously didn’t). This is a risky strategy for Obama since the next election is in two years. The Republicans can also make the cuts very specific and targeted towards winning voter approval, which would make it more likely that Democrats would be willing to override the Obama veto.
Another budget strategy is to pass legislation protecting popular government agencies like the Social Security Administration, and then put the cuts in a separate bill that, if not signed, would impact certain agencies like the EPA, Education Department, or FDA.
The second, largely unused, congressional tool is the Congressional Review Act of 1996. This legislation allows both houses of Congress to review and overrule any new government regulation. As with the budget reconciliation bill, it can’t be filibustered or delayed in the Senate.
However, for the regulation to be invalidated it must also be signed by Obama – a very unlikely event – or the House and Senate must override the veto – also unlikely.
The CRA, however, does prevent the implementation of the regulation until Congress acts on it. This allows the Republican Congress to shelve the regulation by merely not bringing it up for a vote to override the president’s veto.
Expect to see both of these legislative tactics to be used in the last two years of the Obama Administration
Foreign Policy Impact
Although the election will have a major impact on governing in the US, it will have much less impact on American foreign or military policy, since they are both responsibilities of the president.
But, that doesn’t mean that Obama’s policies will escape unscathed. Congress still controls the budget process, which can control what Obama can do. In addition, the US Senate must approve treaties and confirm ambassadors. And, should Secretary of State Kerry resign (for example), the Senate would confirm any Obama selection.
A Republican Senate will also bring some GOP senators to the forefront of foreign policy debate. The most likely to impact policy will be Senator McCain, who will become the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has been an advocate of supporting the Syrian rebels and his position as chairman will give him more political clout.
That may be one reason why Obama signaled that he may go to Congress for legislation to fight ISIS – legislation that McCain would probably support. He surprised many by saying he would ask Congress for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force to help him prosecute a flagging war against (ISIS).
The move is a change from the previous position that a George W. Bush-era congressional permission slip was more than adequate to deal with turmoil in Iraq and Syria. “We now have a different type of enemy,” Obama said Wednesday, echoing Republicans’ objections months ago. “The strategy is different.” “It makes sense for us to make sure that the authorization from Congress reflects what we perceive to be not just out strategy over the next two to three months,” he said, “but also our strategy moving forward.”
While there may be some agreement concerning Syria and ISIS, there is less possibility that the GOP and Obama will agree on a possible nuclear deal with Iran, which has a deadline of November 24th. Obama has the authority to cut back on the sanctions, but Congress can use the budget process to stop implementation of parts of the agreement.
Given the Democratic loss of the Senate, there will probably be more pressure on Obama to conclude a deal by November 24 rather than delay it and give a Republican Senate a chance to scuttle any deal. However, the GOP Senate could bring the issue up in January and force Democratic senators up for election in 2016 to either vote against Obama or support the easing of Iranian sanctions.
A Republican Senate will also be friendlier towards Israel. Israel can expect Congress to be more generous in Israeli foreign aid.
Most of the impact on the GOP wins will be felt domestically – and some of that will probably happen long before the Republicans take control in January.
Obama will be anxious to use the Democratic Senate in the next two months to push nominations that would likely be stalled in a Republican Senate. Consequently, expect him to announce his nomination for Attorney General in the next few days, while current Senate Majority Leader Reid can quickly shepherd it through confirmation.
Another battle in the near future will be any executive action by Obama on amnesty for illegal immigrants, which he signaled he was willing to pursue on Wednesday. “I have consistently said that it is my profound preference and interest to see Congress act on a comprehensive immigration reform bill,” Obama said. However, Obama pledged to “do everything I can in my executive authority’ to take ‘whatever lawful actions that I can take that I believe will improve our immigration system.” He then warned, “What I’m not gonna do is just wait.”
But, there was a degree of bluff in the statements because, as was mentioned earlier, Congress, though the budget process, can restrict what Obama can do unilaterally. In fact, Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and David Vitter of Louisiana sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday saying that if Obama takes unilateral action to grant amnesty to illegal aliens it “will create a constitutional crisis.”
Then referring to the continuing resolution needed to fund the government after December 11th, they said, “Should you decline to defend the Senate and the Constitution from executive overreach, the undersigned senators will use all procedural means necessary to return the Senate’s focus during the lame duck session to resolving the constitutional crisis created by President Obama’s lawless amnesty.”
One piece of legislation that will probably move ahead in the Senate is the Keystone pipeline. The administration consistently has delayed a decision on the pipeline, which would take as much as 830,000 barrels per day of Alberta tar sands crude to refineries on Texas’ Gulf Coast.
So far, Senate Democrats have staved off any binding legislation that would green-light the pipeline (in 2013 the Senate passed a non-binding resolution in favor of Keystone). That will change when Republicans take control. Since several Democratic senators favor the pipeline, Obama might have to negotiate with Congress, perhaps as part of the EPA funding.
Also look for legislation to curtail Obamacare. The major changes will be eliminating the medical equipment tax and removing the mandate to provide medical insurance for full time employees.
The 2016 Presidential Election
Needless to say, the elections had an impact on what happens in 2016. The most obvious was that Martinez of New Mexico and Walker of Wisconsin won their reelection bids, giving Republicans two strong presidential contenders in two years.
However, the elections also will have an impact on the Democratic ticket. Traditionally, governors have been the strongest presidential candidates as they are able to display their leadership skills by governing a state. And, given Obama’s poor management skills, the experience of a potential president will be a major campaign issue in 2016.
That’s bad news for the Democrats, who were originally expected to gain governorships, but actually lost them. Not only does this limit the number of presidential candidates that Democrats could have considered, it forces them to consider beltway figures, especially Hillary Clinton, whose performance during the campaign did little to stop a Republican wave. In fact, the Clinton efforts, which focused on Arkansas and Kentucky, indicate the appeal of the Clintons in another national election may be limited.
Another problem for the Democrats is the continued unpopularity of Obama. Unlike Clinton, who learned from the Democratic losses in 1994 and changed course politically, Obama made it clear Wednesday that he intends to continue the same policies that led to the Democratic debacle this week. That means the chances of a rebounding popularity are minimal.
While Democrats hope for a rebound in 2016, as they found out this year, there is no way to divorce oneself from an unpopular president. Just as Republicans discovered in 2008, merely fielding a new presidential candidate still doesn’t negate the unpopularity of a sitting president.
Big Money and Elections
This was the year of the political fat cat – just 42 people are responsible for nearly a third of super PAC spending in the 2014 election cycle. In fact, super PACs actually outspent the national parties. The biggest political donor was Tom Steyer, the former hedge-fund manager who spent $73 million in an unsuccessful attempt to elect environmentally friendly Democrats. Former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, spent upwards of $20 million in an unsuccessful attempt to elect pro gun control politicians. On the other side is Paul Singer, a billionaire and powerful Republican fundraiser.
Obviously, given Steyer’s and Bloomberg’s failed attempts, big political donations are less effective then many think.
Although money is considered the “mother’s milk of politics,” it hasn’t always been as important as some think. Many Democratic PACs were able to out raise the Republicans even while losing the elections. In fact, after a certain level of advertising, most voters tend to tune out the advertising.
Obviously, in the end, messaging is the most important part of a campaign. Big money and a poor message will not win an election, as many Democratic politicians can attest to today.
The Future of Overseas Contingency Operations: Due Diligence Required
By Emil Maine and Diem Salmon
November 4, 2014
Issue Brief #4294
In 2001, the U.S. government began providing emergency supplemental funds to pay for increased military and civilian costs associated with the global war on terrorism (GWOT). Initially, war funds paid for the mobilizing and deploying of troops, transporting equipment and supplies, and increasing the number of active-duty service members associated with Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Over time, however, the use of war funding expanded to cover issues with only tenuous links to combat operations. Today, with OIF completed and OEF coming to a close, the cost of the GWOT, now called overseas contingency operations (OCO), has also declined from its peak of $187 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2008, to the $58.6 billion requested today. Yet, as OCO spending has declined under the Obama Administration, the passage of the Budget Control Act has created competing pressure to use the OCO account to fund other Defense Department activities.
Post-Election Wrap-Up: What’s Next for Defense Spending?
By Ryan Crotty
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 5, 2014
On November 4, the Republicans expanded their majority in the House of Representatives and took the Senate, winning at least a 52-48 majority. What does this mean for the defense budget in the near term? What are the important decision points over the next six months that are critical for defense? What are the broader concerns to pay attention to in the medium term? With the midterm elections passed, the 113th Congress returns to conclude with a lame duck session starting on November 12. Since Congress recessed on September 19, the United States conducted its first air strikes in Syria, U.S. and Afghan officials signed a bilateral security agreement, and Ebola reached the United States. With this security environment as the backdrop, the next six months harbor significant budget events that will need to be tackled by both the outgoing and incoming congresses.
Can Oil and Gas Markets Adjust to a Rising Persia?
By Carole Nakhle
October 30, 2014
Given its substantial oil and gas resource potential, Iran must be on the radar screen of every major international oil company. Nevertheless, with the exception of Chinese and Russian players who are the only international oil companies currently involved with developing Iranian oil fields, major oil companies have shied away from Iran. This is largely explained by a series of sanctions, mainly targeting the banking and energy sectors and imposed in recent years by the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union, that have limited investment in Iran. The big oil companies, however, are keen to return to Iran if the international community and the Islamic Republic reach a long-term deal on its nuclear program and the sanctions are lifted accordingly, and if Iran offers more lenient contractual terms.
Obama’s Strategy on the Iraq/Syria Crisis Collapsing as Americans Go to the Polls
By Fred Fleitz
Center for Security Policy
November 4, 2014
On September 10, 2014, President Obama announced his strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State and to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight against the Assad regime. As Americans head to the polls today, this strategy is on the brink of collapse. The Islamic State has continued to make gains on the ground and commit atrocities since the president announced his strategy. Over the weekend, the Islamic State executed 322 members of the pro-U.S. Albu Nimr Iraqi tribe in Anbar province, including dozens of women and children whose bodies were dumped in a well. Pleas by the Sunni tribe for weapons to defend itself were ignored by the Bagdad government.
Sabre rattling in the Eastern Mediterranean
By Michael Leigh
German Marshall Fund
November 2, 2014
While the world’s attention is focused on the conflict between fighters from the Islamic State and Kurds on the Turkish-Syrian border, a terrorist attack in Ottawa, and the Ebola outbreak, the eastern Mediterranean is going through a more low-key but worrying bout of energy-fueled tensions. An Italian-Korean consortium (ENI-KOGAS) began drilling for gas in sea areas to the south of Cyprus last month, having received a licence from the government of the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey responded by the dispatch of two warships and has begun its own seismic surveys in areas overlapping Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Its research vessel Barbaros, accompanied by a warship, entered the Cyprus EEZ and began prospecting about 40 nautical miles south of Limassol and Larnaca. Israel and Cyprus launched joint military exercises nearby including aerial maneuvers by Israeli Air Force fighter jets in Cypriot airspace; Cypriot anti-aircraft technology was utilised.
Defeating ISIS: A Strategy for a Resilient Adversary and an Intractable Conflict
By Michael Eisenstadt
Policy Notes 20
President Obama’s decision to launch a campaign aimed at “degrading and eventually destroying” the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) marks a major turning point in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. But the administration’s approach faces major challenges, including the resiliency of ISIS, the complexity of the operational environment, and the coalition’s limited ability to exploit the group’s military, geographical, political, and financial vulnerabilities. Moreover, the president’s reluctance to adequately resource the effort, commit additional reconnaissance and strike assets, or deploy small numbers of troops to the fight will further limit U.S. options and reduce the prospects for near-term success. In this Washington Institute study, military expert Michael Eisenstadt describes how the administration can overcome these obstacles, work through the contradictions inherent in its current approach, adequately resource the military campaign, and make substantial progress in addressing a key threat to American interests.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
C: 202 536 8984 C: 301 509 4144