Taking Care of Unfinished Business
How the outgoing Congress can shore up America's global position by tying up some loose ends in the upcoming lame duck session
It’s been a week since this year’s mid-term elections and, while we knew early on that the much-prophesied red wave failed to materialize, the full results have just now started to come into focus. Democrats will retain control of the Senate and may actually pick up a seat in the upper chamber depending on the results of the upcoming run-off election in Georgia. Though some races still remain to be called, Republicans will likely take control of the House of Representatives with a majority as slim as that held by the Democrats over the past two years.
But the end of the campaign season doesn’t mean the work of the current Congress is done – far from it. There remain a number of issues it can and should address in its upcoming lame duck session, including three main areas with significant foreign policy ramifications: aid to Ukraine, President Biden’s ambassadorial nominees, and domestic policy loose ends like the debt ceiling and permitting reform.
Let’s look at each in a bit more detail.
Aid to Ukraine
Before the election, House Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) warned that his party would look more skeptically on additional American assistance to Ukraine. That comment prompted a brief intra-party kerfuffle, with more mainstream and old-school Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) pushing back against this sentiment. For their part, self-proclaimed progressives in the House embarrassed themselves by publishing and then immediately withdrawing a letter calling for a ceasefire in Ukraine. Had the Biden administration followed the letter’s advice, Moscow almost certainly would have locked its ill-gotten gains in just weeks before Ukrainian forces liberated the strategically important city of Kherson.
That move backfired so spectacularly that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised more aid to Ukraine would “be on the way when we pass our omnibus funding bill this fall.” It’s not clear exactly how large this new tranche of aid might be, or how long it might last – but it’s likely to be significant and long-term given strong and sustained public support for Ukraine, the potential for deadlock in a divided Congress, and worries about what the incoming House majority might do.
Indeed, the current Congress should authorize additional aid to Ukraine in the lame duck in order to avoid the uncertainty that will likely arise in the next one. While the exact size of the Republican majority remains unclear, it’s bound to be exceptionally narrow. That means that the conservative isolationist caucus – some 57 members strong in the current House – could hold other Republican political and policy priorities hostage in order to reduce or even eliminate aid to Ukraine. With margins this close, however, more mainstream Republicans can use the same tactics to more constructive ends. Chaos and stasis - or some combination of the two - remain most probable outcomes, and that’s not something Ukraine can afford from its most important foreign backer.
Either way, it’s better for the outgoing Congress to endorse more assistance now and steer clear of the easily foreseeable political problems that could arise in the next one.
According to a tally kept by the American Foreign Service Association, as of October some forty-one ambassadorial nominees remain unconfirmed by the Senate. While that’s down from eighty unconfirmed nominees at end of 2021, it’s still high – and equally troubling given the absent ambassadors to pivotal countries like Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and India and the vacant posts in the capitals of front-line NATO allies like Estonia, Czechia, and Romania. As Brian Katulis put it over a year ago in The Liberal Patriot, it’s hard to put diplomacy first without actual diplomats.
What makes the current backlog even more absurd is that the vast majority of nominees – thirty-five in total – are career diplomats, not political appointees. But even three of the six political appointees awaiting confirmation have previous ambassadorial or relevant governmental experience. By and large, these nominees aren’t donors receiving rewards for their campaign contributions.
A year ago, the Senate confirmed a slew of ambassadorial nominees after Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) held their confirmations hostage to other concerns. The same could happen at the end of this year, with current nominees approved before the current Congress adjourns.
Domestic priorities: debt ceiling and permitting reform
Perhaps the most important actions the outgoing Congress can take to improve America’s standing in the world are largely domestic in nature: raising the debt ceiling and passing permitting reform.
Above all else, Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling and prevent the incoming House Republican majority from destroying the full faith and credit of the United States in order to extort unpopular concessions from the Biden administration and the Democratic Senate. In an ideal world, Congress would simply abolish this archaic rule and make good on its financial promises. But in the fantastically absurd, down-is-up real world of politics, that’s probably not possible – it’s far too easy to demagogue the issue, and most voters understandably don’t grok this sort of legislative arcana. The best Congress can do right now is kick the issue past the next election, to January 2025.
It's important to take the threat of default seriously: after winning control of the House in 2010, Republicans fomented a debt ceiling crisis by threatening default if President Obama didn’t agree to savage budget cuts. The end result was the Budget Control Act, a law that led to underinvestment in America’s military, research and development, and infrastructure at a time of historically low interest rates. To get a sense of the damage done, just take a look at NASA’s budget during the 2010s: adjusted for inflation, it remained stagnant over the course of the decade. House Republican leader McCarthy has already made clear he intends to run this play again if his party takes control of the House.
Today, however, a totally unnecessary default wouldn’t just embarrass the United States or cripple America’s attempts to compete with China and other nations on the world stage – it’d throw the entire global economy into chaos just as it’s begun to emerge, however partially and unsteadily, from the COVID-19 pandemic. The specter of this dreadful possibility ought to motivate lawmakers to make sure it can’t transpire over the next two years.
Permitting reform appears far more quotidian by comparison, but it’s needed to unlock the full potential of President Biden’s landmark public investment program. Well-intentioned federal environmental regulations (most notably the National Environmental Protection Act of 1970) have created a “Kafkaesque” legal and bureaucratic morass that only increases the cost of public projects in both time and money while doing little to actually protect the environment. To take one example, the federal environmental review of a proposed $10 billion facelift for Washington, DC’s Union Station began in 2015 but somehow remains three years behind schedule and won’t be complete until 2023. Senate Republicans torpedoed Manchin’s first attempt at reform, but he now plans to attach the proposal to the “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act.
If Congress does manage to tie up these loose ends during the lame duck session, it’ll improve America’s position in the world in subtle but important ways – and make the likely gridlock to come far less worrying from a foreign policy perspective. None of these moves would prove terribly earthshaking, but they’re very much necessary if America is to avoid potentially fatal self-inflicted wounds and catastrophic own goals in the years to come. Even if little gets done in the next Congress, the United States will still be able to build – literally – on the progress that’s been made at home and abroad over the past two years.