Wednesday, February 10, 2010

This last week’s news has got me thinking about the particularities of the formulation of US foreign policy – and how it is important that our friends, allies, and even rivals understand why we do the things we do.

An extremely important part of understanding other countries’ foreign policies is to understand how their political systems work. You would be hard-pressed to grasp the comings and goings in Germany, Lebanon, and China if you didn’t understand German coalition politics, Lebanese confessionalism, and modern Chinese communism. By the same token, US allies and rivals, many of whom use simple majority parliamentary systems, can’t possibly understand American foreign policy unless they are proficient in our political system, namely the enormous influence that individual legislators, even in the minority party, exercise over foreign policy decisions.

The filibuster, seemingly the most ridiculous...

...of parliamentary procedures, has been getting a lot of attention recently, especially with newly-minted Senator Scott Brown’s love affair with the number 41. But there are many other tools and procedures that can be employed by individuals in the legislative branch to wield disproportionate amounts of foreign policy power.

The news: Republican (read: minority party) Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama had placed a “hold” on over 70 Obama Administration appointees because he is concerned about the agingKC-135 Air Force tanker fleet and the construction of the FBI's Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center. Shelby’s justification? The hold on “several” appointees was to get the White House’s attention on "unaddressed national security concerns." Shelby’s real concern? Both of these projects would create thousands of jobs in Alabama. A single member of the minority party in the Senate is able to block 70 nominees, including several in national security posts.

On Monday, Shelby lifted his “blanket hold” allowing dozens of nominees to be considered by the Senate. But, he still held holds on three important national security positions: Terry Yonkers, assistant secretary of the Air Force; Frank Kendall, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics; and Erin Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force.

So, what is a hold? Basically, it’s just a promise to grind the Senate to a halt unless you get your way (see more in-depth explanations here and here). It comes from the Senate’s emphasis on “unanimous consent” as a procedural tool to get legislation moving.

The minority party in Washington blocking legislation they don’t like is not new, and almost isn’t even news. But it sheds light on the problems of assuming that just because President Obama says something, it will automatically happen. As we saw in Copenhagen, the minority party in the US has a big say in governing, as the President aptly described in the State of the Union. Our friends, and enemies, would do well to remember that point.

Update: Howard Wasserman at PrawfsBlawg has a great overview of the constitutional concerns posed by individual "holds" and the filibuster, and the constitutional "procedural crisis" that the American political system is rapidly approaching. He doesn't deal at all with foreign policy, but I think it's safe to say it supports a conclusion that nothing is gonna happen anytime soon without the minority Republicans in the Senate on board.


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