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House Chaos and Foreign Policy
Foreign policy's role in party breakdown
Several times this week, I’ve mentally drafted the opening lines of a newsletter about foreign policy and the Republican caucus maneuverings regarding the vacant Speaker’s chair. Just as well! Procrastination can pay dividends in avoiding wasted effort.
The situation as of yesterday evening seems to have arrived at a caesura. With Steve Scalise having stepped aside after having won the nomination, the situation has returned to a pre-decision phase. Right now, if I had to wager, it would be that Jim Jordan is the likeliest person in the caucus to be speaker—but I would not give very long odds for that. The possibilities are manifold; Seth Masket lays out one set of possibilities based on a similar set of breakdowns in the California House of Representatives nearly three decades ago.
What I want to discuss, briefly, is how foreign policy has contributed to this breakdown and what the breakdown means to foreign policy.
It’s almost reflexive for me to state that foreign policy is more affected by U.S. politics than it is a subject of foreign policy. To be sure, if you asked me to name the sources of GOP breakdown in the House caucus, foreign policy wouldn’t be the first thing I’d mention—but it would rank surprisingly highly.
To recall: the immediate cause of the recall of Speaker McCarthy was pushing through a continuing resolution to keep the government open. In those negotiations, debates over whether to fund border security operations (the shorthand “border security” is misleading, I think), emergency disaster relief, and support for Ukraine as part of that legislative package played a major role. Toward the end of the process, Democrats agreed to withdraw the Ukraine supplemental from the package, making a deal for the CR possible—accepting a tactical defeat (and, to be clear, when you accept a promise for the thing you wanted rather than the thing you wanted, that’s a defeat) in the service of a more responsible strategic outcome.
I think it’s clear in retrospect that McCarthy thought that Democrats would not stand with House Republican rebels to vote to vacate the speakership. I think it’s clear that he calculated that they would vote for the “responsible” outcome rather than the partisan one. But legislative organization is the role of parties in Congress, and after months of broken promises (whether by choice or, more likely, inability to deliver) from McCarthy there was no reason for Democrats to save him.
I highlight the border security funding and Ukraine funding aspects of the supplemental (which wasn’t passed) because both are foreign policy demands. The two would have been paired because pairing issues allows members to vote for compromises while still allowing a win they can claim, but they’re also paired because they deal with the stuff of foreign policy: directing the actions of the United States toward entities and phenomena beyond its borders. Foreign policy doesn’t begin at the border, but the border and its maintenance—open or closed, securitized or civilianized—are core issues of foreign policy, just as the support of a friendly country against a Russian invasion is. That the targets of “border security” are migrants rather than other countries is immaterial; foreign policy frequently deals with non-state actors, from pirates to corporations to terrorists.
I am not certain how likely it would have been that McCarthy could have escaped a speakership vote if he had delivered a border/Ukraine package. Perhaps the revolt would have been larger. But it also would have been easier for House Democrats to calculate that a McCarthy who could deliver on their priorities (or, at least, the administration’s), like Ukraine, would have been one that should have been kept around longer. The trouble for McCarthy was that Ukraine funding is now a partisan issue, with House Republicans leading the way—and Jordan leading their way.
To be a partisan issue requires only that one party construct their stance in a way that reflects partisan rather than concrete interests—that is, that an issue be one for which interactions are now zero-sum, win-or-lose. The Biden administration wants Ukraine funding. House Republicans do not. Partly, that is because many House Republicans follow the politics of their primary constituents, which do not approve of spending money abroad and which prioritize other foreign policy issues, like … the border. Partly, that is because many other House Republicans note that Ukraine support is not broadly popular and therefore they get little from bailing the administration out in this context. That is, they see (and here I am, to be sure, basing my writing more on analysis than reporting) the Biden administration as vulnerable on Ukraine.
What is the source of this vulnerability? It’s that the Biden administration politically “owns” the Ukraine issue. They do not want Ukraine to fail, both substantively and because a Ukraine defeat in an election year would severely undermine the administration. As a result, they have a weak hand to play on the Hill with any group that doesn’t see Ukraine’s success as fundamentally important in itself.
It is likely that there’s a bipartisan majority in both chambers to support Ukraine—but it is also likely that there’s sufficient pressure in the GOP caucus to keep any speaker who would be beholden to a small number of committed members to make that bipartisan factor much less important. Specifically, if only a handful of members can oust a speaker, than it only takes a handful of members to veto Ukraine funding from even coming up from a vote.
That does not mean Ukraine funding is doomed but it does mean that any path toward getting it will be fraught. Tying Ukraine funding to Israel funding may be attractive but I wonder whether it will be politically sustainable—and, indeed, whether it will have the same sorts of bipartisan appeal it would have had before Trump Republicans started criticizing the Netanyahu government, to say nothing of other developments that might weaken support for Ukraine.
On the other hand, issues such as Ukraine funding could be the price that Democrats extract for supporting some other potential minority-government Speaker against the extreme holdouts in the GOP caucus. That trade would have to be structured so that Ukraine funding is delivered before Democrats deliver the votes, however, because after the past week the GOP’s line of credit has been yanked. And that runs into the current (but changeable) interpretation that the House can’t act substantively under a speaker pro tem (something outside experts reject but which Republicans are holding to as a reason to excuse inaction and make the speakership stakes real).
All of this brings me back to a point that’s central to my scholarly arguments. Domestic politics of the hegemon matter for hegemonic stability. Instability or anti-hegemonic politics at home can undermine even an attractive liberal hegemony. These are not new arguments; I drafted them in the summer of 2016 and published them in 2019. They are, however, arguments whose force has been missed, not least by foreign policy analysts who assume that the muck of Hill in-fighting has little to do with their elevated stature. But we’ve seen—much more under Biden than Trump, perhaps—that Hill dynamics can affect even issues that used to be supremely bipartisan, like PEPFAR (the anti-AIDS initiative) and promoting officers to fill senior military positions. Foreign policy is political, and that means it’s always potentially partisan.
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