What the Midterms Mean for National Security

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. Cliff Owen/AP File Photo

House Democrats are poised to boost oversight of the Pentagon — and its commander-in-chief.

It wasn’t the blue wave that some bullish progressives had projected. But the midterm election netted Democrats a narrow majority in the House, giving broad, unilateral investigative powers to the opposition party under President Donald Trump and reshaping a Congress that has been unified in Republican hands for eight years.

Democrats moved quickly to characterize their victory in the midterm elections as an American vote for “accountability.” On the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., has already telegraphed a more robust oversight agenda as the likely chairman, one that includes more scrutiny of U.S. support for the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen, secret operations in Africa, and the U.S. nuclear weapons posture.

As for a legislative agenda? With control of the Congress split between two parties, “the areas for legislative agreement will be more limited,” observed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

But just the prospect of oversight has rattled President Trump, who quickly threatened to meet House inquests with investigations into alleged leaks of classified information by Democrats in the Senate — a claim for which he provided no evidence.

And should lawmakers investigate him personally, Trump vowed to take “a war-like posture.”

“When that happens, we’re going to do the same thing and government comes to a halt, and then I would blame them,” the president said during a press conference Wednesday.

Much of the partisan animosity is centered on investigations a little closer to home—like Democratic attempts to obtain the president’s tax returns—but with the Pentagon increasingly drawn in to the pitched politics surrounding the Trump White House, oversight of its sprawling operations is almost certain to be contentious.

Last week, Smith fired a warning shot in a piece in Defense One arguing that the Trump administration and its Defense Department leadership have “made conspicuous decisions to roll back transparency and public accountability precisely when we need it most.”

“Remedying this imbalance by bringing back oversight and accountability should be one of Congress’s major defense priorities,” Smith wrote.

U.S. support of the Saudi and UAE-led campaign in Yemen is likely to face particular scrutiny. The war has escalated into a wide-scale humanitarian disaster marked by civilian deaths, starvation and cholera outbreaks; the U.S. provides targeting and intelligence support for the coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Smith has backed a War Powers Resolution to end U.S. involvement in the conflict. A number of Democratic lawmakers have also begun to clamor for the U.S. to cut off arms sales to Riyadh amid mounting frustration over the punishing nature of the war and in the wake of a growing international consensus that Riyadh was behind the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Clandestine special operations in far-flung places like Niger—where four U.S. service members were killed last year—are also a point of interest, Smith said at the Defense News conference in September.

And the Trump administration’s nuclear posture review “contemplates a lot more nuclear weapons than I — and I think most Democrats — think we need,” Smith said at the event, adding that low-yield nuclear weapons are “extremely problematic.”

In October, Smith teamed up with the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, N.Y., to send Trump a letter warning against leaving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Trump recently announced a planned departure from the arms control treaty with Russia, although Mattis has said that diplomats are still working the issue.

Smith has also set himself in opposition to a pet initiative of Trump’s: a new, sixth branch of the military to deal with threats in space. Smith came out against the proposal in September, citing cost.  

Some areas may be less contentious. Democratic control of the lower chamber is likely to reinforce the current momentum towards cuts to the defense budget. Smith has said that this year’s $716 billion budget is “too high”; in a surprise, Trump recently ordered a $33 billion cut in defense spending for 2020.

But although there may be broad consensus over the need for topline cuts, the new majority in the House will be able to use the power of the purse to try to influence policy on a more granular level. The Armed Services Committees scored big political wins for Trump under the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and current House chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas; in control of the House, Democrats may be able to force compromises on controversial issues like the Space Force.

In other ways, Congress will remain limited in its ability to shift U.S. foreign policy, inherently an executive branch function. The House has far fewer powers to directly influence the U.S.’s internal affairs than does the Senate, which can approve treaties and confirm presidential nominees.

Analysts expect lawmakers across both chambers to press the administration to enforce existing sanctions on Russia, and perhaps even seek stiffer penalties.

The midterms have reshaped both Armed Services Committees in a way that could elevate more liberal voices within the Democratic caucus on defense issues.

In the Senate, Democrats lost several key members of the panel, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Joe Donnelly, the top Democrat on the Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

But in the House, the switch will move up now-freshman Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California—and sometimes bête noir of party leadership—with a fierce focus on ending U.S.support the war in Yemen. He attracted more than 50 sponsors, including Smith, for his War Powers Resolution on Yemen.

Democrats could also select one of their caucus’s fiercest anti-war advocates, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., for a leadership position. Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 authorization for war against al Qaeda, has thrown her hat in the ring for the No. 5 spot: caucus chairman. (She does not sit on the Armed Services Committee.)

Then there are the wild cards: a swath of new members are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who could jostle for seats on the panel.

During the uncertain lame-duck period before the new Congress convenes in January, lawmakers from both parties will be busy jockeying for leadership positions—Pelosi’s status as speaker is by no means assured—and it remains unclear whether Trump will force a partial government shutdown over funding for his proposed southern border wall. The president’s campaign-timed military deployment to the border appears poised to fade from Republican talking points—Pentagon officials on Wednesday said they were dropping the name “Operation Faithful Patriot” amid allegations that it was politically tainted.

There is one other key unknown in the wake of Tuesday’s elections: the fate of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Rumors have swirled for months that he could leave amid a cabinet shakeup.

Neither Trump nor McConnell—whose chamber would have to vote to confirm a replacement—provided any clues on Wednesday.

The president has “signaled that there’s likely to be a number of changes and we’ll process it,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s not up to me to tell him to nominate.”

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