It’s time to strengthen legislative diplomacy

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (center; D-OH) with representatives of the Ukrainian and Georgian parliaments and scholars at the Open World Leadership Center at the Library of Congress.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have highlighted the need for a more assertive congressional role in foreign affairs since the start of the Trump presidency. From Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal’s call to revive the War Powers Resolution and Bernie Sanders push to end the US-backed Saudi war in Yemen on one end of the spectrum, to Todd Young’s proposal for congressional approval of a Taliban agreement and Lindsey Graham’s efforts to sanction Turkey and Russia beyond what the Trump administration wants on the other, new and senior members of Congress alike have been agitating for novel ways to wrest foreign policy influence back from the executive branch. Spurred by bipartisan objection to the administration’s push to move foreign policy in a more nationalist direction and retrench key institutions like the State Department, the push for congressional assertion of foreign policy prerogatives has been boiling over for three years.

High profile, largely partisan, clashes over issues like war powers, Saudi Arabia, and the trade war, however, have obscured the opportunity for less charged, more institutionally effective ways for Congress to reassert its foreign policy prerogatives.

Chief among these is strengthening the House Democracy Partnership (HDP) and its sister legislative diplomatic institution, the Open World Leadership Center (OWLC). These agencies were created after the fall of the Soviet Union amidst a wave of democratizing legislatures. The HDP “works directly with countries around the world to support the development of effective, independent, and responsive legislative institutions.” The OWLC serves Members of Congress in their capacity for congressional diplomacy with strategically important countries.

Today, as democracy recedes around the world, the need for credible US promotion of strong, democratic institutions is more important than ever. Unfortunately, our executive branch is not perceived as leading by example. In this environment, and despite its razor-sharp partisan infighting, Congress as an institution still provides one of the most institutionalized and professionalized legislatures in the democratic world. As such, while its politics and procedures might leave much to be desired, in the nuts-and-bolts institution-building that makes a legislature run, there is much to be gained from a strengthened and bipartisan legislative diplomatic effort.

In previous research on legislative diplomacy, I show how Congress, by prioritizing areas of unique legislative expertise, was able to strengthen both its own influence over foreign affairs and the effectiveness of overall US democratization efforts abroad. In contrast to zero-sum competition between the presidency and Congress for foreign policy influence, legislative diplomacy of the kind typified by HDP and OWLC (as well as congressional participation in international parliamentary assemblies) allows Congress to assert itself in foreign affairs without detracting from diplomatic or development areas to which the executive is better suited.

This makes strengthening legislative diplomacy a ripe area for Congress to focus in today’s unique moment, characterized at once by bipartisan calls for influence, yet also many Republicans’ hesitance to directly confront the Trump administration. Congressional support agencies like the Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, and the Government Accountability Office, as well as outside entities like the Congressional Management Foundation, are rich sources of in-house expertise of well-supported, well-informed congressional operations. HDP and the OWLC have, on a shoe-string budget and staff, effectively exported these non-partisan best practices to democratizing legislatures around the world.

So what would a strengthened legislative diplomatic capability look like?

First, staffing levels for HDP and Open World don’t nearly reflect the importance of the work they undertake to transparently and credibly promote effective legislatures in the democratizing world. Until quite recently, HDP’s staffing model was a hodgepodge of personal staff, USAID detailees, and implementing support from the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, which are congressionally-funded bipartisan international development foundations. While the current Congress should be lauded for bringing on 2 full-time staffers to HDP for the first time in several years, these seasoned experts cannot possibly be expected to fulfill a global democratic mandate on their own. Legislative diplomatic agencies coordinate significantly with the Library of Congress and other congressional support functions for substantive expertise on legislative operations, and with the State Department and other executive branch entities for logistical support. Yet even centralized tasks that remain, such as documenting best practices for peer legislatures, arranging member-to-member and staff peer exchanges, and providing training to partner legislatures’ staff, are far too widespread and numerous for a skeletal staff to handle at scale.

Second, Congress should fund peer-to-peer legislative exchange between “graduated” and new partners to HDP. For example, HDP and other US agencies provided significant support to the Kenyan parliament in a period of fundamental constitutional and structural change, and that country’s legislature has since hosted HDP-like exchanges of its own with other African parliamentarians. These types of “South-South” exchanges are extremely important in international development, allowing for developing countries with more similar cultural and political contexts to benefit from one another’s best practices, rather than looking only to developed democracies for technical and institutional assistance. Particularly in areas of the world where American government assistance and US politicians are viewed with suspicion, quietly facilitating these types of exchanges between HDP “success-story” countries and newer partners would be a low-cost force multiplier in bolstering legislative oversight around the world.

Third, Congress should revive its commitment to material assistance to developing legislatures. As my work finds, these investments, typically under $300,000 each, “yielded an outsized return in providing these parliaments with the basic physical infrastructure and equipment” to run a modern legislature. While we take them for granted in the developed world, grants for things like books for a parliamentary library (in 1990s Poland), internet connectivity for constituent services and policy research (in Timor L’Este), and physical construction of a legislative staff building (in Afghanistan) are necessary building blocks that can help particularly the poorest democracies sustain and actually implement the lessons their legislators and staff learn in peer-to-peer exchange.

At a time when global democracy is in retreat and “illiberal democracies” undermine institutions to erode checks and balances, credible, non-partisan promotion of legislative best practices for checking executive power are as important as ever. From the poorest democracies lacking basic physical infrastructure for an open, effective parliament to former dictatorships with no tradition of a professionalized legislature, the international landscape is ripe with partners willing to work with Congress on a nonpartisan developmental basis. As legislators of both parties rightly look to bipartisan opportunities to reassert Congress’s role in foreign affairs, bolstering legislative diplomacy is a low-cost means to make it happen.

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