Congress uses its prerogatives to shape Asia policy

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
The locus of American foreign policy is typical sought in the White House and at the State Department, but Congress is starting to reclaim its powers of oversight and consent (source: dpa)
  • China’s rise prompted Congress to stop deferring to the business community on policy
  • Lawmakers are growing more assertive on human rights and trade, challenging the administration
  • Analysis that fails to consider legislative influence over U.S. foreign policy is flawed

Perhaps because it is capable of unified action on policy issues – and therefore comparatively easy to understand – most analysis of foreign policy in the United States focuses almost exclusively on the executive branch. This is particularly true when one party controls both the executive and legislative branches. The Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives and new Republican committee chairs in the Senate, however, will give it a more visible role in developing the U.S. approach to the Indo-Pacific region, most notably on policies toward China, human rights, trade, and North Korea.

Over the past decade, Congress has undergone a metamorphosis on China. From the vote in 2000 to grant China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) designation through the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, U.S. lawmakers showed little initiative. The business community, which had successfully lobbied for China to get permanent normal trade relations status (NTR), set the tone for a relatively stable Sino-American relationship. Over time, however, corporate enthusiasm waned as the climate for foreign businesses in China soured. In their interactions with Congress, U.S. companies active in China began to emphasize problems they were encountering in areas like market access and intellectual property rights. They were also less inclined to defend the general health of the bilateral relationship against political disruptions.

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