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CongressLine by GalleryWatch.com: Tempering European Enthusiasm

By Paul Jenks, Published on February 12, 2007


[Note: This article seeks to inform European observers of the U.S. Congress.]

The new Congress, organized now by the Democrats, leads many to believe that the previously strained relationship between the U.S. and Europe will improve. The Democrats' position, particularly on the Iraq situation, is much more closely in line with the European position. European optimism for a new European friendly United States as the result of a Democratic led Congress appears, however, to be overly optimistic. The new Congress can be expected to perhaps curb American global adventures, but a transformation of the relationship across the Atlantic is unlikely.

The role Congress plays in foreign affairs requires some tempering of any enthusiasm as well. The President still holds the primary responsibility for foreign relations and trade policy. Plus, many of the issues relevant to both the U.S. and Europe, outside of Iraq, have broad agreement on both sides of the aisle in Congress. The list of issues of common interest ranging from Chinese trade and currency issues to Lebanon do not pose any new influences on the Bush administration from Congress. A few issues do, however, hold some possibilities.

The new Democratic committee leadership features some very seasoned veterans. The House Committee on Foreign Relations is now led by Rep Tom Lantos (D-CA), a European refugee from World War II who is a strong supporter of human rights issues. Lantos has also been a strong supporter of the Albanian Kosovo majority and he has already reintroduced a measure he submitted last year calling for independence for Kosovo.

The Europe Subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Relations is now chaired by Rep Robert Wexler. The Florida Democrat has signaled his interest in strengthening NATO. Wexler is a strong supporter of improving NATO's relationship with Israel. Hearings are also scheduled on the anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Europe.

On the powerful tax and trade oriented House Ways and Means Committee, Rep Charles Rangel (D-NY) has taken over as chairman, with the Trade subcommittee led by Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI). Their primary influence will be on trade policy, particularly determining whether Congress will renew the "Fast Track" trade treaty procedures in Congress. Fast Track provides for Congress to consider a trade agreement without amendments. It is generally considered necessary for any trade negotiations as Congressional amendments provide a great disincentive to negotiate an agreement in the first place. Free trade agreements are due for consideration later in the year, but the Fast Track authority must first be renewed. At a recent hearing on trade globalization, there were suggestions made for pursuing free trade agreements with Japan and Europe. However, it is worth noting that no members of the Ways and Means Committee itself made these suggestions.

Fast Track authority for trade issues is a contentious issue for Democrats. A part of the reason for the Democratic sweep in 2006 was their arguing against the numerous free trade agreements already in place. The job loss effects of globalized trade are a very prominent feature in most Democratic campaigns. Chairman Rangel has also been quite vocal about labor and environmental provisions in these agreements. Fast Track authority extension is a possibility, but passage of any new trade agreements appears difficult. Rangel noted recently: "I think it's realistic enough to believe that the presidential elections may take away the opportunity for this committee to come up with a bipartisan approach to trade, which of course would include the unions, the trade organizations, as well as the administration."

The other key trade issue that enjoys more widespread support is the recovery of the World Trade Organization - Doha talks for trade liberalization world-wide. The U.S. and Europe feature prominently in these talks particularly in regard to their agricultural subsidies. The President has already signaled his intent in his new budget for Fiscal Year 2008 to reduce agricultural subsidies. Congress will also be considering a new Farm Bill, authorizing agricultural programs this year. This unique convergence of a Farm Bill and movement in reducing farm subsidies in the United States - something that would not have been considered likely just a few years ago - perhaps could provide a significant impetus for US and European agreement on the issue. Peter Mendelson, the EU Trade Commissioner, noted when he visited Washington in January that Democrats appear to support a breakthrough in the Doha negotiations.

One trade issue that provides a major irritant to U.S. European (and also Canadian) interests is the Byrd Amendment. The Byrd Amendment, approved years ago, provides for anti-dumping duties charged by the United States to be distributed to the US producers affected by the foreign dumping. The WTO has ruled against this unusual practice and has allowed sanctioned tariffs on U.S. goods. The Byrd Amendment is a typically American (unilateral) attempt to address the bad aspects of globalized trade. Senator Robert Byrd is the most senior Democrat in the Senate and is Chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Any changes to this would appear unlikely.

In the Senate, Senator Joseph Biden is now the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Biden, who just announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President, could be the one key player in Congress who may be more sensitive to election year focused topics. U.S.-European issues probably will not figure high on his radar, while potent electoral issues such as Iraq Iran will. This could mean that the affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could be a lightning rod for election topics. The Iraq issue is the preeminent foreign policy issue in Congress and this appears to dwarf any other issue, particularly in relation to Europe.

Optimism for a European oriented Congress was tempered even before the new Congress convened. Democrats in Congress were instrumental in scuttling a new U.S.-European aviation agreement that would have provided foreign owners of U.S. airlines greater control over an airline's operation. This is a good example for illustrating how Congress works. Every Congressperson and Senator has a local constituency and that constituency usually trumps any national party philosophy. Airlines are based in Democratic districts, as are Microsoft and Boeing. European regulation of Microsoft or subsidies for Airbus, a subject relevant to Boeing can, as a result, cut both ways in Congress. U.S. home town interests usually win.

The new Democratic Congressional majority has scored one major shift in U.S. policy by the Bush Administration. Global Warming now is a central topic in Congress. The Democratic majority and new positions of the Bush Administration has dramatically change debate on this topic. The Kyoto Treaty was stalled in the Senate by both Democratic and Republican majorities during the Clinton Administration and Bush withdrew the treaty from consideration. This issue has now come full circle with a Democratic Congress pushing a Republican President this time. Whether this convergence will be in tune with more global efforts espoused by Europeans (Kyoto-like efforts) or merely with national policy changes such as subsidies for ethanol remains to be seen. The Americans appear to be definitely moving in the same direction on this topic as Europe.

The United States has traditionally looked to the United Kingdom first when it comes to Europe. This has been true as much for Presidents as it has for Congress. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for the Iraq War has tempered Democratic opinions on the United Kingdom's role in U.S.-European relations. This tempering, however, does not appear to be any radical shift towards some other European country, but does provide an interesting backdrop to a Democratic Congress' view of European issues. Prime Minister Blair's replacement will be keenly watched by Congress.

Outside of the Iraq War, which split Europe as well as the United States Congress, European and US interests are hardly on the rocks. Even during the height of tensions immediately after the Iraq invasion, European and U.S. interests continued to be quite closely linked. The new Congress has already shown to be a tempering factor on some issues for the Bush Administration. It does not appear that it will be an overwhelmingly European friendly Congress however. Divergent political and local interests always limit Congresses attempt to speak with one voice.