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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Congress Pays No Respect to Foreign Policy

The U.S. Congress returned from its vacation this week to confront a rumbling revolt against Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, a new round of campaign finance embarrassments for President Bill Clinton, some foreign policy dilemmas and no sign of any legislative agenda for the Americans whom the Congress actually represents.


This is a recipe for mischief, for introspective and viciously partisan politics, and foreign policy is likely to fall victim to what looms as a hot and tiresome summer in Washington.


Indeed, this process has already begun, in the way that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms, has been able to block ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, even though Republican worthies from former general Colin Powell to former secretary of state James Baker have rallied to the treaty's support.


This bodes ill for most of the progress the Clinton administration hopes to achieve with Russia, from the move to a START III treaty on arms cuts to extended financial support to the tricky prospects for NATO enlargement. Helms stands on suspicious guard against each one.


In a sensible and healthy Congress, this would not matter. Republican leaders like Robert Dole could in the past find ways around, or even through, the portly figure of Mr. Helms. The current Congress is far from healthy and is seldom sensible. Gingrich is far too worried about his critics on the right to take on Helms, and Republican Senate leader Trent Lott has never shown much interest in foreign policy.


In the new Congress, in which more than half of the legislators have been elected since 1992, the traditional respect for the foreign policy experts no longer applies. The mood of partisanship means that many Republicans tend to see foreign policy as just another way to bash the Clinton administration.


Take, for example, the way Gingrich and his nominal deputy, Republican majority leader Dick Armey, a very conservative congressman from Texas, are currently flouting their own deepest instincts and convictions. Both enthusiastic free traders who helped Clinton enact his first term agenda of free trade pacts, Gingrich and Armey are now threatening to torpedo the enlargement of the North American Free Trade Agreement by refusing to renew the president's "fast-track" authority.


This is the specially accelerated procedure under which Congress agrees to waive its constitutional right to micro-manage any new trade agreement, allowing the Clinton administration to negotiate the whole accord and then voting yes or no on the entire package.


Drugs, corruption and trade deficits have made NAFTA a useful whipping boy for the growing coalition of labor unions, right-wing nationalists like Pat Buchanan and Democrats who are starting to worry about the way Clinton's global economy is heading. This means there is an opportunity for that old protectionist Helms to frustrate the Clinton White House.


And as the current fund-raising scandals tarnish Vice President Al Gore as well as Clinton, Helms and the anti-NAFTA forces are finding allies among Democrats like House minority leader Dick Gephardt, who thinks he has a chance of beating Al Gore for the presidential nomination in the year 2000.