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How will the midterms affect US foreign policy and Australia’s strategic interests?

On 8 November, Americans will vote in midterm congressional elections to determine all 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the 100 seats in the Senate. Despite the political theatre, Australians should take heart.

Recent discussions between ASPI DC and congressional committee staff members serving both Democratics and Republicans in both the House and Senate suggest that the looming presidential election in 2024 and the likely focus of congressional committee hearings on topics far from the Indo-Pacific region—such as funding for the war in Ukraine and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021—appear all-engrossing.

But in a new ASPI report we found that next week’s midterms should not negatively affect the Australia–US alliance and the core interests that underpin its success.

While a foreign policy mandate or change in general direction is unlikely to occur, the possible shuffle of congressional committee leadership may facilitate or curb the passage and implementation of policies that address Australian concerns. Canberra should therefore be highly attuned to the changes in the structure and membership of committees, which are the bodies that have a significant influence on the formation of US foreign policy.

Currently, the Democratic Party holds the majority in the House and, with the tie-breaking vote of the vice president, holds an effective majority in the Senate. President Joe Biden’s newly released national security strategy and national defence strategy demonstrate bipartisan consensus and continuity with the previous administration on threats posed in the Indo-Pacific region. The Congress has shown the same commitment through broad consensus to support and work with key allies such as Australia on these issues.

There are three possible outcomes of the midterm elections: the status quo is maintained, with a marginal Democrat hold in both the Senate and the House; a split Congress emerges where the Senate is held by one party and the House by the other; or the Republicans take both the Senate and the House.

A status quo outcome is least likely, but if this scenario comes to pass and the Democrats retain control of both chambers, Congress may empower the Biden administration to introduce policies and laws with less consultation or cooperation with the Republicans. It may also see reduced Republican willingness to offer bipartisanship in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. The Republican Party would probably seek to blame a Democrat-led Congress and White House for any domestic troubles, such as an economic downturn or energy shortages. That domestic disruption could spill into foreign affairs if, for example, US domestic politics is seen as outweighing US resourcing of Ukraine in its war with Russia.

In the second scenario, in which one party has the numbers in the House and the other has the numbers in the Senate, the Biden administration won’t be able to push through controversial legislation by sheer weight of numbers. However, a Republican win in either chamber (but not both chambers) and committees that change accordingly could stall legislation and lead to congressional gridlock as each side tries to advance its own agenda in the lead-up to 2024.

A split Congress will likely view foreign policy legislation and oversight activity through a lens of domestic politics and partisanship. In this scenario, we expect to see partisanship between the two chambers and within the individual committees, which may lead to reduced agreement. Precedent indicates that there’s likely to be more cooperation in committees that are working directly and collaboratively on foreign policy than in the broader theatre of the chambers. That could change quickly if, for example, resourcing Ukraine in the war in Europe loses popularity domestically.

An agreement such as AUKUS depends on it being both a domestic and a foreign policy priority. Congress will continue to strongly support AUKUS. However, new policies for the second pillar of AUKUS’s work program (advanced capabilities such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and hypersonics) may become harder to develop due to overlap between domestic and foreign policy. Domestic battles may also rank above foreign policy considerations.

Support for ongoing US prioritisation of the Indo-Pacific will remain bipartisan. However, there may be more political debate on the level of simultaneous US resourcing to counter Russia’s war in the Euro-Atlantic and China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific. That will depend in part on the partisan and personal predilections of committee and subcommittee chairs.

In the third possibility, which is looking more likely as the midterms near, a Republican Congress, emboldened by an electoral win, would have incentives to challenge the Biden administration. The Republicans would be in a stronger position to introduce and attempt to pass legislation. It’s highly probable that Republican oversight would hinder the administration’s making of political appointments, including US ambassadors. The appointment process is already hindered by committee rules, but Republican oversight would further stymie hearings.

Republican political clout may not necessarily reduce bipartisan cooperation and compromise on foreign and defence policy more broadly—at least not before the presidential election campaign gets underway in mid-2023. There is an overall strong consensus to make foreign policy work, and there would likely be a six-month window of opportunity for cooperation, provided neither branch of government puts forward policies unacceptable to the other.

Awareness of this closing window for cooperation ahead of the presidential campaign season could even increase compromise and bipartisanship over that period. Notably, the Biden administration has overcome these challenges by successfully reaching across the aisle on foreign policy issues (for example, with the recent passage of the ‘CHIPS and Science Act’).

Polls suggests the Republicans will win a majority in the House and could also control the Senate, with the economy and cost of living as the dominant election issues. If that happens, both parties will focus on domestic political needs, requiring Australia to work even harder to keep attention on our priorities. That would mean regularly highlighting Indo-Pacific issues for distracted American lawmakers who, besides their focus on China, will be occupied with the war in Ukraine.

Canberra will also need to encourage presidential and vice-presidential attendance at Indo-Pacific meetings and push for early congressional visits to Australia and the region from members of the new foreign affairs, defence and armed services committees.

In the less likely event that the Democrats hold both chambers, the Biden administration would have more room to move on foreign policy.

Whatever the outcome, it’s in the US’s interest to prioritise the Indo-Pacific even as it manages challenges at home and in Europe. The kind of intimate relationship that Australia needs with the US to strengthen its security and sovereignty requires Australian politicians and policymakers—as well as key civil society and industry actors—to continue putting in time and resources and not rely on an expectation that this critical alliance will manage itself.