No. 6 — February 16, 1996

Feature Article


Christopher B. Johnstone

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The GOP majorities elected to Congress in 1994 may have undermined the long-standing stereotype in Tokyo and other capitals that the Republican Party philosophically is more internationalist than the Democratic Party. In contrast to their more senior GOP colleagues, the new Republican lawmakers at least rhetorically appeared suspicious of free trade and generally hostile to international commitments and obligations. With the 104th Congress committed to a domestic agenda, many observers at home and abroad feared that Captiol Hill would force America to retreat even further from the world stage.

Those fears one day may be realized, but at the halfway point of the current session they clearly are premature. The agenda and the methods of the new GOP majority have proven to be less popular than expected, and a number of freshmen Republicans are expected to lose their seats in 1996. Further, while there is some evidence to support the position that the new GOP members hold views different from long-serving members — particularly on trade issues — the existing record in actuality is more mixed. Given time and added policy experience, the "new" GOP may come to seem much like the old.

The long-term impact of the 1994 elections on U.S. domestic and foreign policy thus remains unclear. Nevertheless, the bitter partisan rancor in Washington and the perceived collapse of a center in American politics could leave scars that will take considerable time to heal. That alone offers a reason for concern among America's allies.


The Republican Freshmen — A New Breed?

Tokyo greeted with considerable apprehension the news that a Democrat had been elected to the White House in November 1992. The common view there holds that the GOP is the party of internationalists and free traders, while Democrats are potentially isolationist and avowedly protectionist. Starting at least with Richard Nixon, who shocked Japan with his move to open relations with the People's Republic of China, and moving into the 1980s, when the Republican leadership under Ronald Reagan was characterized by a renewed commitment to the bilateral security relationship that offset to a degree rising rhetoric on trade issues, the GOP presented Japan with images of effective diplomacy and largely laissez-faire trade policies. The Democrats, in contrast, most recently had been represented by one president from a relatively rural, southern state who as a candidate in 1976 had announced his intention to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula — but later dropped the idea in the face of strong South Korean and Japanese opposition. Fearing that the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, whose only executive experience was as the governor of a rural, southern state, would trigger actions similar to those of Jimmy Carter, Japanese foreign policy professionals anticipated a muddy U.S. international policy and — based on congressional Democrats' "level playing field" mantra — the likelihood of intense transpacific trade conflict.

This dual perception, of course, always has been at best an imperfect picture of reality. In fact, Republicans have not always been ardent free traders and internationalists, and Democrats have not always been protectionist doves suspicious of overseas commitments. Some of the most acrimonious trade disputes in the history of U.S.-Japan relations occurred during Mr. Reagan's second term and the time his Republican successor, George Bush, was in office. That eight-year period of strained relations had more to do, however, with the combination of an activist Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, a growing awareness of Japan as a competitor, and the rapidly deepening U.S. trade deficit with Japan than it did with a flip-flop in the Republicans' position. President Clinton — an aggressive advocate of expanded access to Japanese markets, like many of his Democratic colleagues — has proven to be as staunch a supporter of bilateral security ties as his predecessors. Nonetheless, many Japanese officials privately continue to indicate their desire to see a Republican candidate returned to the White House in 1996.

The November 1994 congressional elections may have discredited forever the notion that the GOP will pursue policies coincidentally believed to be more in line with Japanese interests, however. Superficially, of course, Tokyo might have been pleased by the results of the campaign. In a stunning victory Republicans added 73 members to the House of Representatives and 11 members to the Senate, giving them majorities in both chambers for the first time since 1954. The elections witnessed the defeat of 41 incumbent Democratic governors, senators and representatives; Republican incumbents in those positions, in contrast, held every office under challenge.1 President Clinton's abysmal public approval ratings at the time also led many pundits to believe that a Republican presidential candidate would ride the wave of anti-Democratic fervor into the White House in 1996.

Unfortunately for those officials in Tokyo nostalgic about the Reagan and the Bush years, the crop of first-time Republican lawmakers in the 104th Congress represented something quite new — and not necessarily something more preferable in Japan's eyes. Armed with a strongly ideological domestic agenda, embodied in the Contract With America, the GOP newcomers in their first year sought to reduce and to restructure dramatically the role of the federal government in American society. While some Japanese observers were impressed with the Republicans' determination to eliminate the federal budget deficit, they were somewhat more concerned by the reshaped party's commitment to international free trade — an issue about which the freshmen harbored deep suspicions. Many of the new lawmakers had made criticism of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement an election issue, arguing as have certain Democratic legislators that the deal would result in massive American job losses. Others questioned the benefit of American participation in United Nations activities and the just-launched World Trade Organization, asserting that such institutions threatened to undermine national sovereignty. While not all of these views were new to the Republican Party in 1994, they previously had been representative only of the party's right wing. The large size of the 104th Congress' Republican freshmen class, however, gave this group a key role in defining the party's agenda. Instead of being a reason for relief in Tokyo, therefore, the 1994 congressional elections added to the existing anxiety there about the future direction of U.S. foreign and trade policies. As one assistant to a senior Diet politician put it, the older Republican members of Congress "may have been devils, but at least we knew what kind of devils they were. We're not sure about the [freshmen] crowd."

Despite the traditional pattern of relative powerlessness among freshmen legislators on Capitol Hill, the new Republican lawmakers clearly have been influential — if not always effectual — during their first year. Whether their views represent a permanent new strain of thought in the GOP remains unclear. While many pundits have decried the loss of moderate forces in both parties and fear a trend toward greater extremism in American politics, the freshmen by no means are entrenched members of Congress. Many, in fact, are likely to face serious reelection challenges from more moderate candidates this November. Also uncertain is the group's ultimate impact on American foreign policies — political, security and economic. Despite the occasional antitrade rhetoric from within the body, for example, the 104th Congress as yet arguably has proven no more protectionist than its Democratic predecessors. At least one congressional analyst has described the current congressional attitude toward trade as "retrenchment" rather than protectionism, with members seeking only to step back and evaluate the progress made thus far before moving on to new deals. In short, one year into the 104th Congress the broad foreign policy canvas of the new Republican majority remains a work in progress.


The House Republican Freshmen: Who They Are, What They Want

The 73 Republican lawmakers elected in 1994 have much in common, beginning with their neophyte political roots. Many were candidates with no previous electoral experience, who were recruited and groomed by current Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R, Ga.) and his GOP allies across the country. Demographically the freshmen class is overwhelmingly white and male; only one African American and seven women add to the group's "diversity." The freshmen also are relatively young — the average age of the class is 45, and 21 members are under the age of 40. A large number share a common background in small business, although the newcomers include former professional athletes and movie actors as well. And, while the new legislators come from 32 states, it is interesting to note the states that they do not represent. Only 11 freshmen were elected from districts in the more politically moderate Northeast, with the rest coming almost evenly from the South, the Midwest and the far West. Washington state and California together, for example, claim 11 members of the class.

In running for office many of these freshmen campaigned on intensely conservative and anti-Washington themes. That message was embodied in another of Mr. Gingrich's creations, the Contract With America — a document that virtually became the platform of the GOP in the 1994 congressional elections. Taken as a whole, the 10 items included in the contract (see Table 1) represent a dramatically new vision of the role of the federal government in American society. First and foremost, the GOP manifesto holds out the goal of a balanced federal budget; in part to achieve this aim, many social welfare functions currently overseen and funded directly by Washington either would be transferred to state and local authorities or would be eliminated completely. The document's drafters also sought to spur economic growth by reducing government "interference" in the economy; the contract pledges, for example, to cut taxes and reduce the ability of federal agencies to impose new regulations on industry. Finally, the contract advocates policies supported by American social conservatives. The authors called, for example, for limits on appeals by death-row inmates and an end to automatic eligibility for welfare payments.

While reaction was mixed at home to the new majority's agenda, it was viewed with some anxiety overseas. To foreign governments the new GOP lawmakers and the contract appeared to represent a potentially alarming tilt toward U.S. isolationism. Even though many foreign observers were impressed with the Republicans' newfound commitment to balancing the national books — a step Tokyo and many other governments had been demanding for years to cut the huge U.S. international payments gap — they noted that only one of the 10 items on the manifesto addressed issues related to the nation's foreign policy. Even those proposals exhibited a marked suspicion of international institutions and obligations. In particular, initiatives to prohibit the use of American troops in U.N. missions under foreign command and cut overall American funding for U.N. peacekeeping operations provoked considerable concern abroad. Beyond the contract's specific proposals, the attitude of the Republican freshmen toward U.S. commitments overseas gave rise to concern. The foreign aid community, for example, worried that, in a Congress obsessed with slashing government spending, development assistance programs would experience severe cuts — a fear that ultimately proved prescient. At the same time the freshmen group's criticism of NAFTA and American participation in the WTO, the powerful arbiter of international trade rules established by the December 1993 Uruguay Round agreement, generated questions about the new lawmakers' commitment to free trade.

Although many critics denounced the contract as little more than a political gimmick, the document facilitated an almost unprecedented degree of unity and discipline among House Republicans. GOP lawmakers had pledged during the 1994 election campaign to bring every item on the contract to a House vote within 100 days of the convening of the 104th Congress; that goal was accomplished with time to spare. During those first 100 days House GOP freshmen voted with the Republican leadership 99 percent of the time — and they maintained a 94 percent support rate for the year as a whole.2 That record stands in marked contrast to Democratic Congresses of the recent past, which often proved only moderately supportive of their own president's initiatives.

But, while the House GOP freshmen brought an extraordinary amount of energy and discipline to their task, the checks and balances that characterize the American political system limited their actual achievements. In short, the freshmen Republicans' power in the House was not enough. The contract received much less support from more moderate GOP lawmakers in the Senate. Moreover, Democrats in that chamber profited from voting rules that give the minority party considerably more power than it has in the House. The reluctance on the part of many in the freshmen class to compromise on legislation that reflects their agenda also has resulted in virtually unprecedented levels of congressional gridlock. As of this writing, the chief Republican goal of achieving a plan to balance the budget in seven years remains mired in partisan wrangling — one result of which was two partial federal government shutdowns, including a three-week end to business-as-usual in Washington as GOP lawmakers attempted to force Mr. Clinton to agree to a plan on their terms. In fact, only six initiatives directly linked to proposals in the contract have become law.3 One key plank of the manifesto — a proposed amendment to the constitution limiting congressional terms — went down to defeat in the House.4 And, despite one of the longest first sessions in history,5 Congress had the lowest output during a legislative session since 1933, enacting into law only 88 bills during its first 12 months.6 Democrats were quick to point out that by the end of 1995 — three months into the new fiscal year — only seven of 13 appropriations bills had become law, although Republicans countered by noting that Mr. Clinton's 11 vetoes had contributed to the legislative bottleneck.

The difficulty of assessing the gridlock's impact on the popularity of the House Republicans and Mr. Clinton is evident from an early January Business Week/Harris poll. Of those questioned, 45 percent believed the freshmen to be "ideological extremists," while 49 percent responded that the freshmen "are a new breed of politicians who are trying to keep the promises they made when they were elected instead of just ... doing business as usual in Washington." A full 70 percent disapproved of the Republican strategy of shutting down the federal government to force accession to their demands. Actions by the leader of the freshmen legislators and the self-described Republican "revolution," Mr. Gingrich, were even more unpopular. The poll found that 78 percent of those asked either somewhat or strongly disapproved of the speaker's handling of the budget negotiations with the White House.

The largely negative public image of the Republican-led Congress is sure to add to the woes of the many first-term lawmakers facing presumably tough reelection battles later this year. More than 30 freshmen won their seats in 1994 with less than 53 percent of the vote, and many of these were elected in traditionally Democratic districts. One estimate holds that up to 44 members of the class potentially are vulnerable in 1996; of these, 19 are considered to be "high risk."7 Although Democrats still face an uphill battle to regain control of the House — particularly given the traditional advantage incumbents usually are accorded and the 19 Democrats in the chamber who already have decided to retire — even a relatively small loss of GOP seats could stymie the Republican revolution.


Attitudes Toward The World: A New GOP?

Even if the ultimate impact of the GOP's new crop of lawmakers on American domestic positions remains unclear, the effect on the nation's trade and other foreign policies is less so. As mentioned above, many observers feared at the outset of the 104th Congress that the freshmen members harbored isolationist tendencies and generally would be less supportive of free trade than their reelected Republican colleagues. While there is some evidence to support the view that first-term legislators represent a new strand of GOP thought on America's position in the world, it is too early to tell how significant — or lasting — that change will be. In the words of one analyst the impact of the new Republican Congress and its freshmen lawmakers on American foreign policy thus far can be described best as "big thunder, small rain" — in other words, a great deal of noise but as yet little practical influence.8

Whether the current drizzle of change will become a downpour in the future is somewhat an open question. In contrast to their more senior colleagues, many recently elected lawmakers — not just the GOP freshmen — noticeably appear to lack much knowledge of or interest in international affairs. As Robert Greenberger, diplomatic correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, has pointed out, more than half of the current House members have been elected since the Cold War ended in 1989. In addition, a far smaller share has served in the military,9 a combination that arguably makes them less worldly and perhaps less likely to believe in the importance of an active foreign policy.10 When coupled with the almost exclusively domestic agenda driving the current GOP freshmen class, the result is a distinct lack of attention to foreign affairs — even among those who might be expected to take a greater interest. House freshmen class member Sam Brownback (R, Kan.), for example, has a law degree and once worked in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative as a White House fellow. Nevertheless, his policy focus almost exclusively is domestic. "The education my kids get in Topeka, Kansas, is an international issue," Mr. Brownback has been quoted as saying. "That will determine if they have good jobs and will be able to compete in the world economy."11 Should this trend continue in future elections, the long-term impact on American foreign policy could be significant.

The New GOP Foreign Policy: Exporting a Domestic Agenda? - Most Capitol Hill watchers suggest that the new Republican Congress as yet has had little impact on American policy toward the Asian Pacific. In many ways that hardly is surprising. As one veteran observer has pointed out, there is no explicitly Republican or Democratic view of the region. Nor is there any "organizing center" of Asian policymaking in Congress nor a core set of issues or personalities around which a unified congressional or even a partisan view of the region might emerge. While individual lawmakers frequently become passionate advocates of specific policies toward individual countries or issues,12 the result of this process traditionally has been a collection of ad hoc measures lacking a broad, coherent policy framework. As a result of this nonpartisan, hodgepodge view of the region, the "main outlines" of American policy toward East Asia — such as continued support for the U.S. security treaties with Japan and South Korea — thus far largely have gone unchanged, despite the shift in congressional leadership. (For an overview of the Clinton administration's policies toward Asia, see JEI Report No. 15A, April 21, 1995, and No. 33A, September 1, 1995.)

The status quo is unlikely to be challenged by the new GOP lawmakers, who are concentrating their energy on problems at home. The Republican Congress, of course, has acted in ways that impact East Asia, but its methods generally have been indirect. When the House freshmen have taken an interest in international issues, for example, their positions often can be seen simply as a projection of domestic priorities onto foreign policy. Negotiations surrounding the FY 1996 budget for foreign aid provide perhaps the best example. The House initially appropriated $11.9 billion for foreign aid in the year starting in October 1995 — $1.6 billion less than the previous fiscal year's levels and $1.9 billion less than the White House had requested (see JEI Report No. 36B, September 29, 1995). Also attached to the bill was a provision — strongly supported by many House freshmen — that would restrict access to the funds by family planning organizations that provide abortions overseas. Although spending eventually was boosted to $12.1 billion in conference committee meetings with Senate lawmakers and the family planning issue was finessed to allow continued funding — albeit at reduced levels — the legislation broadly reflected GOP domestic priorities in several ways. First, cuts in foreign aid clearly offered a relatively painless method — at least to constituents — of moving toward the GOP goal of balancing the federal budget, especially on an issue that most Americans mistakenly think consumes far more of the federal budget than it actually does. Second, the family planning provision was an obvious reflection of the opposition among many Republican legislators to abortion rights in the United States. Finally, much like Republican efforts to reform the American welfare system, the cuts in foreign aid arguably reflected broader philosophical opposition in the party to unconditional donations of public money to the poor and the disadvantaged — whether at home or abroad.

The opposition of many in the House GOP freshmen class to American participation in foreign-commanded U.N. peacekeeping operations similarly might be viewed as a projection of domestic values. Many first-timers share a strong suspicion of "big government" and favor devolving as much power and responsibility as possible to state and local authorities. To many freshmen Republicans the United Nations is seen as little more than big government on a global scale; ensuring that full command of American forces remains in Washington in some sense is the foreign policy equivalent of preserving power at the "local" level. The new Republican emphasis on national sovereignty thus arguably can be seen as largely consonant with views and policies pursued at home — in addition to including a certain amount of traditional nationalism.13

Whither Trade Policy? - Of even more concern to foreign observers than the new GOP legislators' general views on foreign policy is their apparently questionable commitment to free trade. The Republican Party traditionally has provided stronger support for free trade initiatives than have the Democrats. When the House passed the NAFTA implementing legislation in December 1993, for example, the bill had more Republican backers (132) than Democratic (102) — despite the fact that Democrats controlled Congress and President Clinton provided active support for the agreement. The Democratic Party is viewed widely as the party of labor and, therefore, is thought to have a protectionist bent; the GOP, in contrast, is seen as the friend of business and accordingly is believed to hold a firm commitment to open markets and free trade.

The new class of Republican lawmakers appears to arise from a somewhat different mold. As noted above, many are populists who have been intensely critical of NAFTA and the Uruguay Round agreement. Some support directly or indirectly the positions of 1996 Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, who advocates tariffs to punish countries with which the United States has large trade deficits, and Ross Perot, an independent candidate for the presidency in 1992 who formed his own political party and placed opposition to NAFTA among the issues at the center of his campaign. Mr. Perot ultimately received nearly 20 percent of the national popular vote, but he has kept a lower profile so far in the 1996 campaign. Mr. Buchanan has made opposition to trade agreements "that send jobs overseas" one of his defining issues in the current election year.

While the freshmen GOP group's rhetorical suspicion of free trade might appear to move them closer to the protectionist instincts of many congressional Democrats, Capitol Hill veterans suggest that the philosophical source of the views within the two parties is quite different. Democratic criticism of free trade agreements — a result of the party's strong union constituencies — tends to focus on job losses and the other negative economic consequences of such accords. GOP opposition, while clearly fueled in part by similar concerns, appears to stem from a belief that participation in trade agreements — and international institutions in general — threatens to undermine national sovereignty. Mr. Buchanan's "America First" campaign theme, for example, clearly adds an element of nationalism to his pledge to defend the U.S. industrial base. The strength and the scope of the economic nationalism exhibited by many in the GOP House freshmen class thus appear to be something new on Capitol Hill.

Whether the freshmen lawmakers ultimately will prove to be as antitrade as some of their rhetoric suggests remains an open question. Relatively few trade-related bills thus far have been introduced or required a vote from the 104th Congress. Until a significant record of votes begins to emerge, one Capitol Hill staffer suggests, the true sentiments of the Republican freshmen will remain unclear — as will the more general question of whether a new philosophy on trade has emerged within some elements of the GOP.

Some members of the freshmen class, in fact, openly contest the view that they are hostile to free trade. Rep. Philip English (R, Pa.), for example, has asserted, "Nothing could be further from the truth." According to Mr. English, many first-time congressmen "simply haven't formed opinions on the issue" and "will become a strong force for trade in the future"14 — a view that is consistent with arguments that the perceived isolationism among the new GOP lawmakers stems more from a lack of experience and knowledge than from a considered position.

While the Pennsylvania Republican's views may not be entirely representative of the GOP freshmen class as a whole,15 there is reason to believe that his analysis is at least partly on target. Some Capitol Hill veterans insist that the GOP freshmen's attitude toward trade is little different from the views increasingly prevalent among more senior lawmakers in both parties and within the public at large. According to this interpretation, Congress as a whole has become more suspicious of free trade agreements — though not necessarily more protectionist — in large measure as a result of the widespread perception that NAFTA has brought little benefit and considerable cost to the United States.

On other issues the GOP newcomers were hardly alone in their opposition to President Clinton's proposals. His January 1995 plan to prop up Mexico's collapsing peso and stricken economy is one example; many Democrats and senior Republicans equally were opposed and only reluctantly did not try to overrule the White House actions. In addition, despite some initial criticism of the negotiating tactics deployed by the Clinton administration last spring in its fight to gain a politically credible automotive market-access accord with Japan, Republicans and Democrats alike provided broad support (see JEI Report No. 24B, June 28, 1995). Although many analysts accused U.S. trade strategists of advocating "managed trade," even many long-standing free traders in the Republican party lent support to the June accord and other market-access pacts concluded under the U.S.-Japan Framework for a New Economic Partnership. Their backing arose out of an apparent belief that Japan represents a "special case" that justifies the use of methods not entirely consistent with the free trade ideal.

Republican moves to dismantle the Department of Commerce and to create a unified trade agency (see JEI Report No. 31B, August 18, 1995) also might be seen through a similar prism. While not necessarily a protectionist initiative, the proposal attempts to strengthen Washington's ability to serve as an advocate of American business overseas and suggests a clear dissatisfaction with current trade policy.16 This broader move toward a "new skepticism" of free trade thus is perhaps a bipartisan trend of which the freshmen may be only a small — if often extremely vocal — part.


A Look At The Evidence

  • Mexican Peso Bailout and NAFTA. The evidence for the GOP freshmen's hostility to free trade is perhaps most obvious in American policy toward this country's southern neighbor — but even here the record is somewhat mixed. In a well-documented event the 73 GOP first-termers unanimously opposed the White House's initial $40 billion plan to bail out the collapsing Mexican peso — despite support from much of the Republican leadership for the White House initiative.17 Mr. Clinton withdrew the proposal and ultimately chose to bypass Congress by signing an executive order providing a $20 billion loan package for Mexico. Congress later passed legislation threatening to cut off aid to Mexico unless the administration provided documents describing the details of the bailout, a demand with which the White House ultimately — although reluctantly — complied.
    Not to be thwarted, a group of first-term GOP lawmakers — in particular, Rep. Steve Stockman (R, Texas) — sought to force a vote on the White House's backup method for supporting the Mexican economy. In late March, however, the Republican Conference voted 105-59 against bringing to the House floor a resolution aimed at blocking the administration's $20 billion Mexican bailout plan.18 Many freshmen ultimately voted in conference with the majority. Later efforts to bypass committees and bring the resolution directly to the floor proved no more successful, attracting the support of only about 40 House members.19
    In criticizing the White House actions to prop up the Mexican economy many lawmakers in Congress adopted a moralistic tone; these legislators questioned why U.S. government resources were being used to protect the investments of international banks that presumably understood the risks involved in purchasing the securities of a fragile developing economy. Other critics, including many in the GOP freshmen class, linked the peso crisis with the NAFTA accord, viewing it as proof that the agreement was a bust for the American economy — although many economists questioned the validity of linking the two events.
    Many freshmen GOP lawmakers in the House continue to hammer at the NAFTA accord. When seven-term Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, Ohio) in November introduced H.R. 2651, which would force the United States to withdraw from the NAFTA pact if targets in such areas as job growth, public health and the trade deficit are not met, 15 Republican cosponsors signed onto the bill — including 10 GOP freshmen. One GOP first-termer, Todd Tiahrt (R, Kan.), reportedly stated, "You'll see more and more freshmen take the lead on this as the year progresses. ... A lot of freshmen are interested in it because we've seen the failure of the policy."20 Other members of the class assert that many candidates in both parties hope to make NAFTA a major theme of the upcoming elections. Senior House Republicans who are free traders have been unable to ignore the views of their colleagues. Rep. Philip Crane (R, Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee and a strong defender of free trade, has pledged to hold hearings on the implementation of NAFTA sometime early this year.
  • Fast-Track Extension. The House GOP freshmen were also a significant factor in 1995's White House-Capitol Hill stalemate over renewal of the president's so-called fast-track authority — which allows the president to submit trade agreements to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote without amendment. Throughout the year the White House sought a broad fast-track authority similar to that granted by the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act, under which the United States negotiated the Uruguay Round and NAFTA accords. The House Republican leadership, however, was angered over President Clinton's demand for NAFTA side accords that addressed labor and environmental standards — provisions that many GOP free traders viewed as protectionism in the guise of social progress. These lawmakers sought to limit the principal negotiating objectives of any new fast-track authority to those areas "directly related" to trade — thus theoretically excluding "extraneous" matters like workers' rights and environmental protection from future trade negotiations. The unwillingness of either side to compromise21 was the central cause of a standoff that left the president without fast-track authority throughout 1995. As a result, negotiations for Chile's accession to NAFTA went nowhere, and U.S. delegates at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum's November summit in Osaka were unable to offer significant trade concessions as an American contribution to the group's near-term success.
    Partisan wrangling was not the only factor behind the collapse of the fast-track renewal discussions, however. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, the GOP theoretically could have sent its own version of a bill to the White House, thus forcing Mr. Clinton to decide between accepting Republican terms or issuing a veto — a step that would have allowed the GOP to blame the White House for the failure to reach agreement. The fact that neither chamber in Congress could pass a Republican version of the bill suggests the extent of divisions within the GOP on the issue. Although at least one Capitol Hill observer insisted that freshmen GOP opposition to fast-track renewal was "overstated," the group nonetheless seemed to play an important role in ensuring the measure's demise. For example, a group of 29 House GOP lawmakers — most of them freshmen — signed a letter in October urging that a provision renewing fast-track authority be dropped from a budget bill sent to the president; the group argued that fast-track reauthorization was a measure that "lacks a popular mandate" (see JEI Report No. 40B, October 27, 1995). The fast-track provision ultimately was withdrawn, with the House GOP leadership saying that it did not want to send a measure to the floor that would receive no Democratic and at best considerably divided Republican support. Mr. Crane at the time indicated that as many as 60 Republicans might have voted against the fast-track renewal measure.22 Discussions in the other chamber proved no more successful. Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole's (R, Kan.) November announcement that "it would be a mistake to extend new fast-track authority at this time" effectively ended the prospects for fast-track renewal until after the 1996 elections (see JEI Report No. 43B, November 17, 1995).
  • China's MFN Status. The House vote last July to renew China's most-favored-nation trading status with the United States also did not go as smoothly as might have been expected with Republicans now in charge of Congress.23 During most years in recent memory the Democratically controlled House, using the annual vote as an opportunity to criticize harshly China's human rights record, has passed bills revoking MFN treatment; in each case those measures either have been rejected by the Senate or vetoed by the White House. Given Republicans' traditional support for free trade and generally softer line on human rights conditions overseas, a GOP-controlled Congress ordinarily would have been expected to renew Beijing's MFN status with little controversy. However, the new GOP lawmakers' economic nationalism — particularly in the wake of China's steadily increasing trade surplus with the United States — added a layer of complexity to congressional maneuvering last summer. Congressional Democrats opposed to MFN renewal, in particular, expressed hope at the time that members of the GOP freshmen class might be recruited to their side.
    Interpreting the 1995 China MFN vote is complicated at best. At its most basic level the vote reflected the relative priority individual lawmakers attached to encouraging trade and economic ties with China on the one hand and protesting the Asian giant's human rights abuses on the other. But other issues also affect the thinking of Congress on MFN for China. The vote could have reflected, for example, traditional American sympathy for Taiwan during periods when Beijing's attempts to influence developments on the island are seen as excessive — as was the case last year, particularly following Beijing's protests and actions after the unofficial visit of Taiwan's President Lee Teng Hui to the United States in June. Lawmakers also might even have used the vote as an opportunity to express displeasure with the overall direction of American foreign policy, anticipating the unlikelihood that favorable tariff treatment for Chinese-made imports actually would be revoked. Views on these issues also do not always divide along party lines. In recent years, for example, Rep. Frank Wolf (R, Va.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D, Calif.) have become annual cosponsors of legislation to revoke Beijing's preferential trade status. Using the 1995 vote on China's MFN renewal as a gauge for evaluating the stance on trade issues of the GOP freshmen class — and of the Republican Congress as a whole — thus warrants a considerable degree of caution.
    Nevertheless, the 1995 China MFN vote arguably suggests that the GOP freshmen are less hard-line on trade issues than sometimes is presumed. For much of the first part of 1995 congressional renewal of MFN was hardly a foregone conclusion. Particularly harsh criticism of Beijing, including from many GOP legislators, was provoked by the June arrest of Harry Wu, an American citizen and prominent critic of China's human rights conditions, and continuing allegations of Chinese weapons-linked sales to such countries as Iran and Pakistan. China's behavior steadily weakened support on Capitol Hill for MFN renewal. Although Republican leaders in the House last July insisted that they had sufficient votes to defeat outright any attempt to revoke MFN treatment, they ultimately opted for a compromise to encourage greater support — while at the same time allowing opponents to record their criticism of the communist giant.24 By a 321-107 majority the House voted in July to reject a resolution that would have revoked China's preferential trade treatment. Then, by an even larger 416-10 majority, the House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Doug Bereuter (R, Neb.) criticizing Beijing for actions ranging from import restrictions to the torture of prisoners; the legislation further ordered the White House to establish a Radio Free Asia. The bill also instructed the president to report to Congress every six months on relations with China. This second vote, however, largely was for symbolic effect. The White House did not take a position on the measure, and — as was widely expected at the time — the Senate since has failed to take up the bill for consideration.
    The 107 members who voted against renewing China's MFN status were divided equally between the two parties: 53 Republicans joined 53 Democrats and one independent lawmaker in seeking to revoke lower tariffs for Chinese goods. The GOP freshmen, however, were strikingly supportive of the majority, with only 17 members of the class voting to revoke MFN. Put another way, more than 75 percent of the purportedly protectionist-leaning House Republican first-termers voted to allow continued favorable access to the American market for products from a country with an already big and steadily growing trade surplus with the United States.
    As stated above, the China MFN vote cannot be viewed simply as a referendum on sentiment toward trade in Congress. One Capitol Hill analyst, for example, has suggested that Mr. Gingrich played a key role in securing support for the MFN renewal bill; many GOP freshmen well may have been reluctant to oppose their leader and mentor on an issue over which they had no adamant stance. Other strong critics of China — among them Rep. Wolf, who voted against his own resolution to revoke MFN — voted for Rep. Bereuter's compromise proposal as better than the alternative of an almost certain loss on any stand-alone MFN vote. Nevertheless, the vote perhaps suggests that the new class of GOP lawmakers will prove to be stronger defenders — or at least weaker critics — of free trade than initially was expected.25

While current congressional views of trade clearly are mixed, the future direction of sentiment on the issue remains in flux. Many analysts assert that trade issues fall relatively low on the list of concerns for most voters and that, therefore, they will play little role in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections. These observers point out that in 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Richard Gephardt (D, Mo.) — who is currently House minority leader — sought to make trade a central issue of the campaign; his failure to do so at what one observer termed "the height of the paranoia" surrounding the huge U.S. trade deficit with Japan suggests that the issue again will be relatively unimportant in 1996. According to this view, the current disinterest on Capitol Hill in pursuing additional market-opening agreements with Japan or other countries or — more important in the present context — arrangements widening access to American markets for selected trading partners reflects the perceived need for a "cooling off period" to assess the results of the deals achieved thus far. After a period of "retrenchment," public sentiment for new agreements that lower U.S. barriers to trade in goods and services may become more favorable once again.

Other analysts are less sure. One Capitol Hill source suggests that GOP presidential candidate Buchanan, with his aggressive economic nationalism, "is on to something politically." Public opinion polls, in fact, show strong support for many of Mr. Buchanan's proposals. In a November 1995 EPIC-MRA/Mitchell poll, for example, 69 percent of those asked said that they approve strongly or somewhat with the idea of imposing tariffs on countries that have trade surpluses with the United States. Mr. Buchanan has campaigned for imposing a 10 percent tariff on imports from Japan and a 20 percent duty on goods coming in from China. Some 54 percent of the poll's respondents also broadly approved of levying tariffs on goods from countries in which workers earn "extremely low wages," another idea frequently mentioned by Mr. Buchanan. Finally, 37 percent of the poll respondents cited trade and overseas competition as the cause of the presumed stagnation in U.S. manufacturing-sector wages, while 32 percent blamed immigration and 19 percent cited technological change.26 Some analysts suggest that the poll paints a misleading picture of public attitudes. If informed that tariffs are taxes that result in higher domestic prices, for example, many voters might be far less sympathetic to protectionist proposals. Nevertheless, if Mr. Buchanan succeeds in making trade — and particularly NAFTA — an election issue, protectionist sentiment on Capitol Hill could increase considerably.


The Future: A Collapse Of The Center?

Through the first half of the 104th Congress the House GOP freshmen and their longer-serving Republican colleagues have built a mixed record — one that critics see as underachievement and inconsistency and that "revolution" adherents view as principled if often thwarted by President Clinton. Future prospects remain open to debate. Many pundits continue to argue that the American body politic moved dramatically to the right in 1994 and will continue to do so in 1996. Were the GOP to capture more seats in Congress and a Republican candidate to win the White House this fall, the remaining Democrats on Capitol Hill would find it nearly impossible to stop the agenda embodied in the Contract With America.

The reverse also could happen, of course. As suggested above, polls indicate that many House GOP freshmen face tough bids for reelection in 1996; other polls suggest that President Clinton — who currently faces no challenge from within his party — would defeat easily any of the current Republican presidential contenders in a two-candidate race. Democrats already are pointing to Ron Wyden's recent victory in a special Senate election in Oregon27 as evidence of the party's resurgence and voters' concerns about the GOP course of action.

Even if the Republicans find that their revolution has collapsed after only two years, the impact of the 1994 congressional elections is sure to be felt for years to come. The 104th Congress has been characterized by strikingly bitter partisan rancor. The almost complete breakdown of bipartisan spirit has created a level of animosity that some analysts suggest will take years to heal. The bickering also has prompted an unprecedented number of retirements (see Table 2). Some 28 House lawmakers and 13 senators thus far have announced their intention to step down. Among them, significantly, are many political moderates in both parties — although Democrats' retirements far exceed those of the GOP. To some observers this suggests that the American political center has begun to collapse, leaving only the more extreme elements of each party in office and further increasing the level of partisan hostility.

The loss of moderate forces is perhaps most pronounced in the Senate. Respected veteran Democratic senators such as Bill Bradley (N.J.) and Sam Nunn (Ga.) have been joined in announcing their retirements by such moderate GOP voices as Mark Hatfield (Ore.) and Nancy Kassebaum (Kan.). Many of these lawmakers have decried the breakdown of civil debate in Washington. Sen. William Cohen, a moderate Maine Republican who in January indicated that he would step down after 18 years in office, explained his decision by noting,


I suspect ... that we [retiring senators] share a common level of frustration over the absence of political accord and the increase in personal hostility that now permeate our system and our society. ... There has been a breakdown in civil debate and discourse. Enmity at times has become so intense that members have resorted to shoving matches outside the legislative chambers. The Russian Duma, it seems, is slouching its way toward the Potomac as debate gives way to diatribe.28

The jury still is out on the ultimate impact of the new Republican congressional leadership on the nation's foreign and domestic policies. But, regardless of their partisan stripes, analysts agree that the current climate of gridlock in Washington is the worst of all possible outcomes, provoking frustration at home and uncertainty among American partners abroad — as exemplified by the regional anger and confusion generated by Mr. Clinton's decision to miss the November gathering of APEC country leaders in Osaka in order to continue budget negotiations with congressional Republicans. Polarized U.S. politics, unless Americans counter a long trend of electing a Congress and a president from opposite parties, is likely to lead only to more gridlock on both domestic and foreign issues, further immobilizing the world's last superpower.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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1aa David S. Broder, "Rebels Without A Pause," The Washington Post Magazine, December 31, 1995, p. 14. Return to Text

2aa Richard Dunham and Amy Barrett, "The House Freshmen," and Howard Gleckman, "Lessons From the Class of '74," Business Week, January 29, 1996, pp. 28-32. Return to Text

3aa According to Congressional Quarterly's Congressional Monitor, three of those new laws were passed relatively quickly with broad support from Congress and the White House alike. These include requirements that Congress abide by the same labor laws as those imposed on the private sector; that Washington reduce mandates imposed on state and local governments without support from federal coffers; and that Washington develop goals for scaling back government paperwork requirements. Two other proposals — to strengthen child pornography penalties and to allow housing specifically reserved for the elderly — were signed into law in late December. The sixth bill — aimed at limiting shareholder lawsuits — became law after a late December override of a presidential veto. CQ's Congressional Monitor, January 8, 1996, p. 18. Return to Text

4aa This measure faced a difficult battle from the beginning because proposed amendments to the Constitution require two-thirds passage in both houses. Return to Text

5aa The 365-day first session of the 104th Congress was matched only by the first sessions of the 77th Congress (1941-1942) and the 102nd Congress (1991-1992). Return to Text

6aa Mark T. Kehoe, "First Session at a Glance," Congressional Quarterly, January 6, 1996, p. 7. Return to Text

7aa Dunham and Barrett, op. cit., p. 31. Return to Text

8aa Susumu Awanohara, "The Republican Congress: Asia's Pain or Gain?" (forthcoming), p. 8. Return to Text

9aa Ten years ago more than half of all House lawmakers had served in the military; that number has declined to about 40 percent now, including only about 20 percent among the freshmen members of the 103rd (1993-1994) and 104th Congresses (Ibid., p. 6). Return to Text

10aa Robert S. Greenberger, "Dateline Capitol Hill: The New Majority's Foreign Policy," Foreign Policy, No. 101, Winter 1995-1996. Return to Text

11aa Quoted in Ibid., p. 165. Return to Text

12aa Sen. Mitch McConnell (R, Ky.), for example, sought unsuccessfully to impose tough trade sanctions on the repressive military regime in Myanmar as part of the FY 1996 foreign operations appropriations bill. Return to Text

13aa Also a factor is the freshmen Republicans' strong dislike for Mr. Clinton, which no doubt explains in part why many of their foreign policy positions go against White House wishes. Rep. Howard Berman (D, Calif.), for example, reportedly has said of the GOP freshmen, "To many of them, if Clinton is for it, it must be bad. There's a reflexive anti-Clinton mood. ... Their attitude is, we should be against it if we can make him look bad." (Quoted in Greenberger, op. cit., p. 166.) Return to Text

14aa Speech before the World Trade Forum, January 24, 1996, Washington, D.C. Return to Text

15aa Rep. English is clearly more moderate than many of his freshmen classmates. When President Clinton called for an increase in the minimum wage — a decidedly liberal position — during his January 1996 State of the Union address, the Pennsylvania Republican was the only GOP lawmaker to stand and applaud. He even has introduced a bill to this effect, although the chances of its success in a Republican-dominated Congress are slim. Return to Text

16aa Harsh Democratic criticism of the proposal as well as divisions within the Republican Party over its merits appear to leave the Commerce Department out of danger of dissolution — at least for now. Return to Text

17aa The Mexican peso began plummeting in December 1994 and created a crisis in payments on that country's short-term government securities. The Clinton administration helped arrange international assistance (see JEI Report No. 2B, January 20, 1995). Return to Text

18aa "Mexico Aid Package Disputed in Senate, Finessed in House," CQ's Congressional Monitor, March 31, 1995, p. 3. Return to Text

19aa Equally loud in criticizing the second White House bailout plan was Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R, N.Y.), who attached an amendment — which later was withdrawn — to a broader budget bill that would have blocked further loans to Mexico without congressional approval. Carroll J. Doherty and Karen Foerstel, "GOP Senators Try to Block Mexican Loan Package," Congressional Quarterly, April 1, 1995, p. 956. Return to Text

20aa Quoted in Karen Foerstel, "GOP Frosh Take Aim At NAFTA, Will Seek to Force Changes," CQ's Congressional Monitor, January 4, 1996, p. 4. Return to Text

21aa Many congressional Republicans lay the blame for the standoff over fast-track renewal at the feet of U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, who often was accused of inflexibility during the discussions between the White House and Congress. GOP leaders have made no secret of their desire to see Mr. Kantor replaced by someone more willing to compromise on the issues of labor and environmental standards. Return to Text

22aa "House Republicans Drop Fast-Track Renewal From Budget Bill," Inside U.S. Trade, October 20, 1995, p. 1, and "Dole Opposition Spells Death For Fast-Track Bill, Senate Aide Says," Inside U.S. Trade, November 10, 1995, p. 1. Return to Text

23aa Federal law mandates that the White House and Congress annually review China's MFN status, which applies to imports from China the same tariffs that the United States assesses on purchases from most of its other trading partners. The debate over whether to renew the preferential treatment often is one of the most contentious issues of the calendar year, as the debate over how to help China economically usually is mixed with demands for progress in China's human rights conditions. Return to Text

24aa Michael Wines, "In House, Tirade on China, but a Vote to Keep Trade as It Is," The New York Times, July 21, 1995. Return to Text

25aa Many analysts suggest that this year's debate over renewal of China's preferential trading treatment could be even more contentious. American ties with Beijing have been icy at best in recent months, and China's increasingly belligerent approach toward Taiwan has earned Taipei considerable sympathy in Congress. Coupled with the burgeoning U.S. trade deficit with China — along with Beijing's questionable enforcement of a bilateral intellectual property rights accord it signed with Washington last year — MFN renewal could face a hard "sell" on Capitol Hill this summer. Return to Text

26aa John Maggs, "Poll Shows Opposition to Clinton's Trade Policy," The Journal of Commerce, November 14, 1995, p. 1A. Return to Text

27aa The Oregon election was held to replace outgoing Sen. Robert Packwood, a veteran Republican who resigned last fall under widespread allegations of sexual misconduct. Mr. Wyden's election leaves his seat in the House vacant until a special election in May. Return to Text

28aa William S. Cohen, "Why I Am Leaving," The Washington Post, January 21, 1996. Return to Text

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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