Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 27, 2022, to review of the fiscal year 2023 budget request for the US Department of State.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 27, 2022, to review of the fiscal year 2023 budget request for the US Department of State. Pool / AFP via Getty Images / CAROLYN KASTER

Lawmakers Seek To Flex Dormant Foreign-Policy Muscle On Capitol Hill

“Right now we have an unbroken streak of one,” a Senate aide told Defense One.

Congress is trying to reclaim a measure of oversight over the State Department after nearly two decades of ceding that annual responsibility, but some experts are not optimistic that lawmakers can overcome political differences to do so.

The Biden administration has sought to put diplomacy at the center of America’s foreign policy by rebuilding alliances, boosting the role of the State Department, and ensuring that diplomats work alongside the military instead of playing a supporting role. On Capitol Hill, where foreign policy has largely been left to the armed services committees for decades, the foreign relations panels are trying to elevate their own roles by building on their successful passage of the State Department authorization bill last year. 

“Right now, we have an unbroken streak of one,” a Senate aide told Defense One. “I don't know if the politics of this will ever make it must-pass the way NDAA [the annual defense authorization act]  is, but inasmuch as we can institutionalize this so it’s a regular feature of the legislative landscape, we want to.”

Many factors are driving this change. America’s pivot to great power competition means diplomats are likely to play a bigger role than in the counterterrorism operations of the past two decades. Plus, lawmakers from both parties have united to repair the Trump administration’s gutting of the State Department. 

“Some credit in that sense goes to the Trump administration for unifying people across the political aisle,” said Elizabeth Hoffman, the director of congressional and government affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former House staffer. “People were just really frustrated with what the Trump administration did to the State Department on both sides of the aisle. Now that they have the opportunity to turn things around, I think they’re taking advantage of that.” 

In December, Congress passed a State Department Authorization bill (by attaching it to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act), for the first time since 2002. Lawmakers are aiming to keep the streak going this year. For the previous two decades, authorizers, who are supposed to set policy for the agencies they oversee, allowed appropriators to drive foreign policy legislation on Capitol Hill by passing an annual State Department funding bill.

Some former congressional staffers who served on the committees say momentum is on their side, and that not much has changed in terms of the politics or personalities involved since the bill passed last year, leaving them poised to succeed again. Others are less optimistic about the committee’s 1-in-19 track record and think partisan differences are likely to derail the bill.

There are some areas of bipartisan agreement that could make it into the fiscal 2023 bill, though it’s too early to know exactly what will be included, a committee staffer said. Some possible topics include boosting initiatives at the State Department to increase diversity in its workforce and tweaking how the State Department works to make it “more expeditionary” and less risk averse. Lawmakers are also considering using the bill to provide some statutory authorities for the department’s new cyber bureau, the staffer said. 

Authorizers are ‘ceding’ power to appropriators

An authorization bill is critical to help the State Department rebuild after the Trump administration prioritized defense over diplomacy and repeatedly tried to gut the State Department’s budget, driving civil employees and experienced diplomats to leave the department. Clear buy-in from Congress now can help the department grow and improve, said Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former staffer with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. 

“If we’re talking about addressing issues like cyber and updating diplomacy in development to meet 21st-century challenges, you really need to have this in place, otherwise you’re missing a key component of the legislative process,” he said. “It really forces members together on both sides of the aisle to have to deal with these very difficult issues.”

There are also limits to what changes the agency can make without congressional support, said Tom Sheehy, an advisor to the Diplomatic Studies Foundation and former staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  

“No agency, no department is going to fundamentally reform itself without a second set of eyes, without pressure, and without outside influence,” he said. “That’s the role of congressional oversight…If you don’t have that discipline and rely on reforming yourself, bureaucratic reform is terribly hard.”

Passing an annual bill is also good for Congress, because it helps staff and lawmakers in opposite parties learn to work together and because it increases lawmakers’ oversight ability. Authorizers in the Senate hold some power over the State Department because they can hold up the agency’s many ambassador nominations, but House approval is not required for those posts, and without an authorization bill, members have few opportunities to have their say on the direction of the department.

“It really is detrimental to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which doesn’t have the power of nominations and treaties,” Hoffman said. “Passing a comprehensive reauthorization every year would really give them a big boost….They are really ceding a lot of jurisdiction and authority to appropriations.” 

Challenges abound: Abortion, immigration, and time

Despite many areas of bipartisan agreement, a handful of deeply political issues could threaten to derail the bill if lawmakers try to tackle them. Support for negotiations to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon are typically a partisan issue, with Republicans opposing the lifting of any sanctions without Iran first fully ending its nuclear program. The Mexico City Policy, which says foreign non-governmental organizations can’t perform or promote abortion if they receive family planning assistance from the United States, is another partisan sticking point. The policy was initially announced in 1984 and has been alternately rescinded by Democratic administrations and reinstated by Republican presidents ever since. 

“I don’t see any possible way that they’re going to be able to do anything on that front because there are certain House Republicans that have basically tanked the whole process before, based on the Mexico City Policy,” Hoffman said. “There’s pieces of State and USAID that are less controversial…and you can kind of pass a more skeleton version of the bill.”

Lawmakers are also facing a time crunch. Congress is expected to be out of Washington for all of August. Ahead of the election, the House will be out of session for all of October, while the Senate has a three-week break. 

“If we can’t get this done in the next couple of months, as with everything else up here, things will shut down come the summer to November,” the staffer said. “The calendar is the biggest challenge right now.” 

Biden has emphasized the priority of diplomacy since becoming president, and has a long history of doing so in Congress as well, including as a leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The State Department is full of former Congressional staffers, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Assistant Secretary of Political-Military Affairs Jessica Lewis, who both worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Mira Resnick, the deputy assistant secretary for regional security, who worked for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

The Biden administration is “happy and willing to be partners” on the effort to routinely pass State Department authorization bills, the Senate aide said, but the White House push for diplomacy is not driving the shift. Jason Steinbaum, a former staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed out that lawmakers tried to pass an annual bill long before Biden took office. “We wanted to do that during the Trump administration and back to the Obama administration. We all wanted to do that,” he said. 

Past efforts were often derailed by political fights, including over programs like the Mexico City Policy, where debate on the bill became too partisan and the bill just died. In 2020, lawmakers had bipartisan agreement and were very close to passing a bill, but Ivanka Trump demanded lawmakers include her global women's development program, a proposal that ended up sinking the legislation.

Hoffman said the “stars had just never aligned” before. But a combination of things helped the bill pass in 2021: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., making this a top priority, Democrats having control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, lawmakers uniting in supporting the State Department after a rough patch during the Trump administration, and diplomacy playing an increasingly important role in the nation’s foreign messaging, as evidenced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Why it’s not the NDAA

The armed services committees have passed the National Defense Authorization Act every year for the past six decades. Handling the must-pass piece of legislation gives the House and Senate Armed Services Committees inordinate control over the nation’s broader foreign policy, because other panels like the foreign relations or intelligence committees do not have their own bills to make their voice heard. The authorization act also gives the committees increased oversight over the Pentagon, as well as the opportunity to make requests of the Defense Department in non-binding report language that the department has treated as official requests from Congress. 

Though multiple experts said the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are a good model for a well-functioning authorization process on Capitol Hill, they also acknowledged that the State Department authorization bill will never have the same urgency as the piece of legislation that covers a pay raise for troops and decides how much will be spent each year on programs run by defense contractors and their powerful lobbying staff.  

“There’s a direct connection that members have to constituencies and voters in that passing,” Hoffman said of the NDAA. “The State Department just doesn't have that….There’s contractors and things like that for State of course…but the constituency, the domestic constituency isn’t that large for who would benefit out of that particular action.”