I’ve been putting off writing the inevitable â€œwhat the congressional election results mean for our workâ€ post. We’ve now had two weeks, though, to think and talk to people about how the new legislative reality will affect U.S. policy toward Colombia and Latin America. After these two weeks, it’s clear that work toward goals like human rights and demilitarization has become easier. But how much easier? I don’t know. Nobody knows, really.
One reason I don’t know is that it’s still hard to envision. I first went on the payroll here in September 1995, months after Newt Gingrich’s Republican â€œrevolutionâ€ of 1994 took over Congress. During these eleven years, Capitol Hill has been a tough place for us. The Republican leadership were not consensus-builders, they were ultra-partisan hard-liners who could countenance only a military, status-quo solution to perceived threats in Latin America. Our goals in the Congress, then, were extremely modest: to limit damage and to support members – most of them in the minority party, with little power – working for very small initiatives like human-rights conditions, failed amendments to transfer money from military aid to economic aid, or â€œsign-on lettersâ€ to voice concerns.
I’ve never worked in Washington at a time when Congress was run by people who actually agreed with our positions. We’ve never had a chance to play offense. So it isn’t easy to imagine what possibilities await us now.
(This is probably unnecessary, but let’s include a disclaimer here after the jump. Although this post views the November 7 election results in a positive light, CIP is a non-partisan organization. Our foreign policy views do coincide most often with those of Democratic Party members, and the change in control of the Congress will probably make our work easier. But we are not an appendage of that party. In fact, we have disagreed with many foreign-policy stances taken by prominent Democrats – Plan Colombia under President Clinton, for instance. To be identified with a single party would not only threaten our tax-exempt status, it would make us less effective. Our ability to change anything, after all, requires that we manage to convince at least some Republicans.)
Obviously, we’re very optimistic. Representatives and senators who have tended to vote our way over the years, including some leading opponents of the current U.S. strategy in Colombia, are going to be in positions of great influence.
- Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a longtime advocate of human rights and a critic of unrestricted military assistance to Colombia, will most likely be drafting the 2008 foreign aid bill as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Foreign Operations. Unlike 2001 and 2002, when the Democrats briefly controlled the Senate, the aid bill coming out of Sen. Leahy’s subcommittee will not have to be reconciled with a very different bill written by a Republican-dominated House. Instead, that chamber’s foreign-aid appropriations subcommittee will be headed by Nita Lowey (D-New York), who in the past has criticized the aerial herbicide fumigation program in Colombia, and who has consistently advocated more rural development assistance. The Republicans will of course have a seat at the table in the foreign aid process, but if it resembles that granted to the Democrats in the last few congresses, their influence will be muted and limited.
- Back in 2000, when the Clinton Administration’s big â€œPlan Colombiaâ€ aid request was passing through the House, the very first amendments seeking to reduce the military-aid component were introduced by David Obey (D-Wisconsin) and Nancy Pelosi (D-California). The Obey amendment failed despite getting the votes of a large majority of Democratic members. The Pelosi amendment had a long list of speakers on its behalf, but failed on a voice vote. Today, though, David Obey is about to become the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, with jurisdiction over the foreign aid bill. And Nancy Pelosi, of course, is to be the next speaker of the House.
- Other principal advocates of a new Colombia policy who will be in key positions include Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), who will be the number-two member of the very powerful Rules Committee (National Journal puts Rep. McGovern on its list of â€œDemocrats to Watch,â€ under the heading â€œOthers Likely to Tick Off the White House.â€) Rep. Sam Farr (D-California), a former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia who has long fought for more rural development aid, is now a majority-party Appropriations Committee member. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), who has sponsored and spoken on behalf of all amendments seeking to change the policy, is likely to be one of the deputy majority whips. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), an initial supporter of Plan Colombia who has since taken important stands on human rights, will head the Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. (See this post for more profiles of House Democratic leaders whose records indicate support for a changed policy toward Colombia.)
This is all great news. It indicates a dramatic change in climate. With allies like these in key positions, we advocates of a new U.S. policy have lost a key excuse for our past inability to make progress.
But we may not exactly find ourselves in the driver’s seat. Several realities still stand in the way of seeing our legislative goals fully realized.
1. The Democratic Party is not monolithic. True, recent amendments seeking to move funds from military aid to economic aid have had the votes of 80 percent or more of House Democrats. In the Senate, there have been fewer votes to gauge opinion. Though 38 of 47 Democratic Senators rejected an increase to the Colombia â€œtroop capâ€ in 2004, Democratic senators in 2000 overwhelmingly opposed the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s (D-Minnesota) attempt to remove the military component from President Clinton’s original â€œPlan Colombiaâ€ appropriation. Now that they are in power, is Democratic support for a changed policy going to remain solid?
The original â€œPlan Colombiaâ€ appropriation in 2000 – which included $860 million in new aid to Colombia, 75 percent military and police aid – was initiated by a Democratic administration. At the time, it enjoyed the support of key Democrats in the Congress, among them Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts); Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), who will head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), the number two in the Senate’s Democratic leadership; and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-California), who will chair the House International Relations Committee. Some Democrats who initially supported Plan Colombia have since adopted a more critical stance, especially where human rights are concerned. But others, such as Rep. John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania), who nearly became the next House Majority Leader last week, have almost always voted against measures to limit military assistance.
Meanwhile, analysts keep arguing that the Democrats took back control of the Congress by running centrist or conservative candidates – that is, candidates who might prefer a â€œtoughâ€ approach to Colombia and Latin America. I have no idea whether this analysis is correct, but it is clear that the Democrats took advantage of the Republicans’ rightward lurch by winning over centrist Americans (the so-called â€œReagan Democratsâ€). A desire to hang on to this group’s support may lead Democrats to take a more cautious, incremental approach on many issues, including aid to Colombia.
2. One can never underestimate the impact of a charm offensive from the Colombian embassy, whose past lobbying for more military assistance has proved quite effective. It is noble, after all, to want to help a government that claims to share our goals, while endlessly promising to improve its human rights record. While most Democrats will question requests for more helicopters and weapons to continue an unchanged strategy, the embassy may manage to win over key members of the new congressional majority.
3. The Bush administration, of course, is still very much in the picture. Its budget request – which will likely resemble those from previous years – cannot be ignored or cast aside; much compromise will be inevitable.
4. Some Republican votes may still be necessary, especially since there may be a possibility of Republican amendments to tack more military funding onto an aid bill authored by Rep. Lowey or Sen. Leahy.
5. Caution and calculation will increase when legislative initiatives have a greater chance of actually becoming law. Dramatic change in drug policy or aid to Colombia may make some leading Democrats uncomfortable, especially those who have an eye on something bigger in 2008 or 2012.
1. While the policy is likely to change somewhat, we are unlikely to see sweeping reforms, like an end to the fumigation program or a balancing of military aid to less than 50% of total aid (it’s currently 80%). No matter how badly such reforms are needed.
2. Changes will likely happen in committee, not in debates on the House or Senate floor. We’ve gotten used to Colombia policy being the subject of impassioned debates in the full House of Representatives, usually during consideration of the foreign aid bill. Now, the Democrats will not have to push their agenda by seeking to amend Republican bills, so the changes to the policy will more likely happen in committee deliberations, and in the drafting of the aid bill. We may still be preparing talking points and lining up speakers for a fiery debate – but this time in opposition to Republican attempts to increase military aid. (Instead of McGovern amendments led by Rep. Jim McGovern, perhaps we’ll now see Burton amendments led by Rep. Dan Burton [R-Indiana].)
3. We now must define an alternative policy in greater detail, now that this alternative stands a greater chance of being at least partially adopted. This means developing the ideas in last year’s â€œBlueprint for a New Colombia Policyâ€ (PDF). Simply calling for â€œmore funding for rural development in conflictive zonesâ€ won’t be enough. Requesting â€œmore investment in judicial reformâ€ is now too vague. Working with Colombian counterparts to prescribe a vision of what these proposals should look like in practice is now more than just an abstract exercise in â€œwhat might beâ€ in some alternate reality. That reality now exists, and there is much work to do.
4. We must frame these alternatives in a way that doesn’t scare off moderate Democrats – and even moderate Republicans – wary of proposals that sound too â€œradical,â€ â€œsoftâ€ or â€œliberal.â€ Even in this vastly more favorable climate, success will require that our critique of U.S. policy toward Colombia, and our proposals for a new approach, resonate beyond just the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. This doesn’t mean altering our positions or beliefs in any way, but it does mean explaining them clearly and often.
Our critiques and proposals are grounded in common sense, area expertise, and a reasoned evaluation of what promises to be more effective than the current approach. We know this, but we will not convince more moderate legislators if we allow our positions to be mis-characterized.
If we are to succeed in the new Congress, and to keep opposition from solidifying among moderate and conservative members, we must stop these memes about us from spreading:
- That our goal is to cut U.S. aid and â€œabandonâ€ Colombia.
- That we think all military aid is evil.
- That we naively think security can be achieved through economic aid and poverty programs alone.
- That we want a negotiated peace at any price.
- That we ignore guerrilla human rights abuses.
- That we want to legalize drugs.
These are all false, but many are widely believed, and scare off would-be supporters. At least one of them comes up in almost every debate or discussion we have with opponents. In the new Congress, it will be important that we no longer allow them to fester and spread.
In the next post, I’ll explain why each of these six mis-characterizations is utterly wrong.