Following an overwhelming victory in the November 2 elections, the Republican Party will be taking majority control over the U.S. House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January. The Republicans gained seats in the Senate as well, but that body will remain under the Democratic Party’s majority control. For the first time since 2002, control of the U.S. Congress will be split between the two main parties.
What this means
Having majority control of a chamber of Congress means having overwhelming control of that chamber’s agenda. In the House, the Republican Party leadership will decide what legislation gets debated and voted on the floor (in plenary). It gets to write the first draft of every budget bill, starting next year with those for 2012. And they get the chairmanships of all committees, which hold hearings, draft and approve legislation.
Legislation approved by the House must also pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. The two houses must then reconcile differences in the legislation, which may prove to be very difficult. Then, bills must ultimately be signed into law by Democratic President Barack Obama, who could refuse to do so if he objects strongly to provisions that come out of the Republican House’s version.
What this means for Latin America
In general, the new Republican House majority favors:
A tougher stance toward leftist governments, especially Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Legislative efforts to soften the Cuba trade embargo or travel ban will face huge obstacles. Expect more resolutions, legislative language and hearings criticizing human rights abuses, evidence of democratic weakening, ties to Iran and other non-democratic regimes, or increased narcotrafficking activity in Venezuela or Bolivia.
Movement on “free trade.” Expect a push to approve the pending U.S. trade promotion agreements with Colombia and Panama, which the Obama administration says it also supports. This push could be delayed or weakened, however, if unemployment remains near 10 percent – U.S. public opinion tends to believe that free trade costs jobs – or if the new “Tea Party” Republican representatives turn out to be as protectionist as they are nationalist.
Calls, from some quarters, to increase “Drug War” aid. Before losing their majority in 2006, House Republicans were among the most energetic advocates of “Plan Colombia” and similar mostly military-and-police aid programs in the hemisphere. Later, from the minority, they strongly supported the Bush administration’s mostly military-and-police “Mérida Initiative.”
Key Republicans are likely to call loudly for more military and police aid to both countries to fight drug production and transshipment, and may perhaps seek to weaken human rights contitions applying to this aid. They will probably not succeed in increasing dollar amounts by much. The House leadership appears committed to shrinking the overall foreign aid budget substantially, leaving little room for “Drug War” aid increases. The Obama administration is seeking to orient such aid more toward civilian institutions. Combine these factors with some Republicans’ stated distrust of the Mexican government, and military and police aid may stay close to current levels.
The committee chairmanships will have the most impact over U.S. policy toward Latin America. While the Republican House leadership may choose different chairmen, these are the most likely heads of the committees with the most relevance for Latin America policy.
Foreign Affairs: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) (Relevant recent statements)
Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee: Connie Mack (R-Florida) (Relevant recent statements)
Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are conservatives. Both enjoy strong support from elements in Florida’s Cuban exile community that want to maintain a hard line against Cuba, keeping the embargo and travel restrictions in place. Both are vocally critical of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Both voice strong suspicion of Iran’s influence in the region. Both supported the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. Both effusively praised Colombia’s ex-President, Álvaro Uribe, and call for approval of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Their committees hold most hearings covering U.S. policy toward Latin America, and write legislation, including periodic re-authorizations of foreign assistance programs. Their legislative output, at least where Latin America is concerned, has been quite modest in recent years.
Appropriations State / Foreign Operations Subcommittee: Kay Granger (R-Texas)
Rep. Granger, a moderate conservative and one-time mayor of Fort Worth, has little record on Latin America policy. Her subcommittee writes the “first draft” of the annual foreign aid budget bill, deciding which countries get what kind of aid, and under what conditions. The House foreign aid bill must be reconciled with the Senate’s bill, which is initially drafted by a subcommittee chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). Leahy has been a leading advocate for human rights and development assistance in the Americas.
Ways and Means Committee: Dave Camp (R-Michigan) (Relevant recent statements)
Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee: Kevin Brady (R-Texas) (Relevant recent statements)
This committee’s chief importance for Latin America is its role in initiating the House’s consideration of free trade agreements. Both Reps. Camp, a moderate conservative, and Brady, a “small government” conservative, have gone on record favoring ratification of the agreements that the Bush administration signed in 2006 with Colombia and Panama.
Armed Services Committee: Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California)
This committee funds the U.S. Southern Command and a host of counter-drug programs carried out in the region. While these are important U.S. efforts in Latin America, they account for a microscopic portion of the US$750 billion defense budget. The conservative Rep. McKeon has little record on Latin America policy; we can expect from his committee little resistance to a growing Defense Department role in foreign assistance programs, and continued support for the deployment of National Guard personnel at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Oversight and Government Reform Domestic Policy Subcommittee: Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)
This subcommittee oversees drug policy and drafts legislation authorizing the activities of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (the “Drug Czar”). The deeply conservative Rep. Jordan is likely to favor continuing the emphasis on military and police assistance that has dominated U.S. overseas drug supply reduction strategy since the 1980s.
Photo: Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), the likely new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, poses with Carolina Barco and Jaime Bermúdez, who served as Colombia's U.S. ambassador and foreign minister during the government of Álvaro Uribe.