What can the U.S. Congress do in the Americas?

  • photo courtesy of marttj www.flickr.com/photos/29241010@N00/10007498733
    Feb 5, 2014

    Last week, President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address, summarizing the U.S. relationship with the Americas in one line—as “building new ties of commerce [and] also expanding cultural and educational exchanges amongst young people.”

    The Obama Administration has pledged to strengthen ties with its neighbors in the region, but there remains no cohesive vision for foreign policy in the Americas. Though the administration is largely responsible for the development of U.S. foreign policy, that process is not dependent on the executive branch alone.

    According to the U.S. Constitution, Congress advises the President in negotiating agreements, provides consent for—and ratifies—treaties, and approves of presidential nominations to key foreign policy postings. Perhaps most importantly, Congress can sway foreign policy through its responsibility of overseeing the budget and allocating U.S. foreign aid accordingly. And through hearings, members can help define public opinion and discourse as well.

    Though there has been a flurry of activity in the House, primarily through hearings, since 2011, there have been no major congressional initiatives in the Americas, despite the region’s importance to U.S. interests. Instead, Congress’s recent work in the region appears primarily limited to security and human rights—despite the changing realities of the region.

    Given the region’s rapid growth and transformation, does Congress’s attention toward the Americas reflect the realities of the region?

    Q1: What has Congress’s role been in U.S. foreign policy in the Americas?

    A1: Although the executive branch is primarily responsible for the formation of foreign policy, Congress’s control over funding gives it the so-called “power of the purse.” Today, this responsibility is weighted toward appropriators, who are often in the position to both determine policy—typically reserved for authorizers—and allocate funds. Through conditioning funding on key priorities, Congress’s allocation of foreign aid allows it to help determine U.S. policy priorities. And though there are a number of senators who tend to prioritize regional foreign policy, they fall mostly on the authorizations side of the equation.

    Throughout the Cold War, Congress remained highly involved and vocal on foreign policy issues in the region. During the 1980s, for example, El Salvador became the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid with over US$4 billion in military and economic assistance. And in a deal cut to push Congress’s vision for U.S. policy in the region, Congress conditioned its approval of the aid on assurances that human rights conditions in the country were improving.

    Most notably, Congress has enabled major free trade agreements (FTAs) throughout the Americas. In 1993, Congress ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which established a free trade area among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Between 1993 and 2010, trade increased by 218%, reaching $944.6 trillion—all as a result of NAFTA. And since 2000, Congress has ratified ten new FTAs in the region, including agreements ratified with Chile in 2003, Peru in 2007, and, most recently, Colombia in 2011.

    Congress’s major projects in the region since 2000 include funding for Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico to combat security issues—primarily drug trafficking—and to strengthen government institutions. Since Plan Colombia’s approval in 2000, Congress has provided over US$7.5 billion in funding for the program. Meanwhile, Congress has appropriated US$1.9 billion to the Merida Initiative since 2008. These initiatives, both of which have proved central to improving the security of the U.S. government’s most reliable allies in the region, were enhanced significantly by U.S. congressional funding and support.

    Q2: What’s the current situation in the region?

    A2: Venezuela and Cuba tend to dominate U.S. coverage of the region, given the unstable political economy and poor human-rights record, respectively. And recent struggles with freedom of the press have earned the region headlines as well.

    But much of the region’s recent developments focus on four key areas: commerce, energy, security, and immigration.

    Countries in the region are emerging as global leaders in free trade an economic liberalization. The majority of the free trade agreements currently in negotiations either are based in or include countries from the Americas, and should the agreements under way come to fruition, the lion’s share of rules-based trade will include countries from the Western Hemisphere.

    But the hemisphere is not just jumping on some free-trade bandwagon with extra-regional origins. The Pacific Alliance, an innovative trade bloc founded by four of Latin America’s most robust and open economies and with observers from around the world, has made headlines throughout 2013. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has similarly attracted international attention for its efforts to further liberalize trade within the hemisphere and beyond.

    And with Secretary of State John Kerry joining the call to update NAFTA as it closes out its first twenty years, the current climate in the hemisphere is more favorable for trade than at any time in the recent past.

    The revitalization of NAFTA brings the second key issue into play: energy. North American energy production is higher than ever before, with the continent well on its way to energy independence. And though we continue to wait for the resolution of Canada’s KeystoneXL pipeline project, still pending U.S. government approval, North America’s energy potential will only be furthered with the successful finalization of Mexico’s energy reform process. And, as Secretary Kerry suggested, perhaps both NAFTA and the North American energy agenda could be furthered by incorporating continental cooperation on energy issues into the agreement.

    Security troubles, largely resulting from the hemisphere’s ongoing fight against the production and trade of illegal narcotics, remain central to the region’s agenda, too. Colombia is nearer to ending its long and violent conflict than at any point over the past several decades. Drug violence continues to plague much of Central America, while leaders throughout the hemisphere are growing tired of the bloodletting, beginning instead to explore alternative approaches to the war on drugs—such as Uruguay’s recent legalization of marijuana.

    And though immigration reform fell off the U.S. legislative agenda in the midst of the budget dispute, the chemical weapons crisis in Syria, and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, advocates will likely remain vocal as 2014 unfolds. Legislators have already begun to pick the issue up this year—and if it is tackled in the first two quarters of the year, we may see some real progress on the reforms.

    In recent years, Congress has paid little mind to our closest neighbors. Notable exceptions are, for the most part, issues with vocal champions in the U.S. legislature—like U.S. policy toward Cuba or ongoing reconstruction efforts in Haiti. And given Congress’s role in defining public opinion, it seems particularly concerning that a region changing so rapidly and in ways so vital to U.S. interests has received so little attention in our primary deliberative body.

    Q3: What should Congress do?

    A3: Congress’s role, in short, hardly seems reflective of regional realities. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising given legislators’ recent difficulties in reaching consensus on a wide range of issues, domestic and international alike. Still, the discrepancy between Congress’s perceived priorities and the reality of the region is significant—and will require further attention should we hope to close that gap.

    Efforts like the administration’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas and the Look South initiatives, intended to expand the number of Americans studying in Latin America and to help more American companies to do business with the United States’ 10 free trade agreement (FTA) partners in the region are steps in the right direction. But they alone do not comprise a comprehensive and cohesive foreign policy platform reflective of the ever-changing dynamics of the region.

    In that context, there are a number of issues that Congress could—and should—take on.

    Given the importance of commerce to intra-regional affairs and U.S. prosperity, Congress would be remiss in failing to renew President Obama’s authority to fast-track free trade agreements. The revocation of that authority could prove detrimental in TPP negotiations—and in pushing forward the free-trade agenda throughout the region. And beyond fast-track authority, Congress could help to further the commercial relations between the United States and Brazil by reopening the possibility of a tax treaty with the South American country, among other opportunities.

    Though immigration reform has certainly hit its speed bumps in the past year, the House is already sending signals of progress on reforms—though likely in a more limited form than the process’s most vocal proponents would prefer. Largely contingent on legislators’ willingness to compromise on the comprehensiveness and depth of the reforms, this renewed process should be a top priority for Congress moving forward.

    Furthering immigration reform would also demonstrate to Mexico and Central America that the United States is willing to work on issues important to its counterparts throughout the hemisphere, even when those issues stir up conflict at home. Meaningful reform could help redefine perceptions of the United States in the region, sending the message that the U.S. government recognizes the region’s and its people’s importance in our own prosperity moving forward

    Recent regional trends toward marijuana legalization also pose a series of important questions for Congress moving forward. As the first to experiment with an innovative approach, Uruguay’s recent legalization of the drug poses a direct challenge to the U.S. government’s established zero-tolerance policy in leading the war on drugs. If Uruguay’s law proves to be successful, other Latin American countries may follow—generating still-greater pressure on the United States to reconsider its current approach to counter-narcotic policy.

    Conclusion: Despite the back-seat the legislature has taken on regional foreign policy in recent years, Congress can—and should—develop its relevance to U.S. policy in the Americas. But the region is changing, so Congress’s approach has to change with it.

    And to start, that approach has to move in line with the issues most pivotal to U.S. interests in the region: commerce, energy, immigration, and security. Though prioritizing these issues may, at times, seem difficult to justify in light of global developments that appear more existentially threatening to the United States, failing to address the dynamics in our own community of nations could, in the long run, prove no less threatening to U.S. prosperity.

    The congressionally appropriated foreign aid budget for Latin America was just US$1.8 billion in 2012—and the Administration’s regional budget request for 2014 was just US$1.5 billion—making the Western Hemisphere the second-lowest recipient of U.S. aid in the world, ahead only of East Asia and the Pacific. And the lion’s share of that budget is devoted to Colombia, Haiti, and Mexico alone. Through appropriations, then—Congress’s most direct means of indicating and promoting its foreign policy priorities—legislators have demonstrated less interest in today’s Latin America.

    Ultimately, it’s up to legislators to explain the relevance of hemispheric issues to the U.S. public—and to ensure their place in the greater U.S. foreign policy agenda. That is not always an easy task. But the implications of mismanaging these issues and the U.S. response to them would be far-reaching. So what is Congress waiting for?

    Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty and Michelle Sinclair, staff assistants with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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