After nearly three weeks and four candidates, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana has become Speaker of the House. Divisions among House Republicans caused this process to be excruciating despite the impetus created by a looming government shutdown and renewed threats posed to America’s allies. While these immediate concerns captured most of the media coverage of the chaos, this speaker election carries serious implications for the foreign policy platform of the GOP.
The divisions among House Republicans are often described as a feud between the young MAGA and more seasoned establishment wings of the GOP. Though overly generalized this concept remains useful for analyzing these intra-party conflicts. Foreign policy reveals the sharpest divisions. MAGA Republicans have fostered a sentiment among constituents that the over $50 billion spent on U.S. foreign assistance is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
These constituents ask why the federal government is spending money on countries that appear hostile to American interests when there are serious needs to be addressed at home. This is a sentiment many Americans are likely familiar with and even broadly sympathetic to. The problem is that there has rarely been any further explanation of which countries and programs would receive cuts, forget how America would navigate the seismic shift in international relations such a policy would create.
The vague concerns surrounding foreign aid appeared occasionally throughout the now stalled appropriations process, most notably when House Republicans united in their opposition to further U.S. assistance to Ukraine. These concerns remained fragmented and did not develop into any serious policy proposal until September 29th.
During consideration of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, Congressman Greg Steube of Florida offered several amendments to broadly cut U.S. foreign assistance. Two amendments would have recklessly prohibited any U.S. assistance to Iraq and the Lebanese Armed Forces, respectively. While these amendments clarified some of the missing details for this policy, they also affirmed that the calls to cut foreign aid are shallow reactions to constituent frustrations rather than responsible scrutiny of U.S. foreign assistance.
Over 100 House Republicans voted for both amendments, including Speaker Mike Johnson, apparently viewing these votes as an opportunity to record their protest against U.S. foreign assistance and prove their MAGA credentials to their constituents. This vote revealed that a majority of House Republicans support cutting foreign assistance with limited concern for the actual consequences of such a policy. Despite the clear dangers in pursuing such a policy, House Republican leadership have embraced it with the majority of the candidates for Speaker having voted for both amendments.
Speaker Mike Johnson will now lead the GOP through restarted federal budget negotiations. He will likely work to undo the Biden administration’s desired bundling of Ukrainian and Israeli foreign assistance with funding for border security, further solidifying the Republican Party’s broad opposition to foreign aid. Under his leadership, Speaker Mike Johnson will rally House Republicans around a redefined agenda by addressing these divisions. House Republicans, including the new Speaker, must be held accountable for this vote and be pressed to further elaborate their position. If a debate on U.S. foreign assistance is necessary, it must be done with consideration for the objectives of U.S. foreign policy because the alternative would be tremendously disastrous.
Foreign assistance is essential to America’s leadership of the rules based world order. If America’s foreign assistance is questioned, American leadership will too. Often the concerns driving calls to cut foreign assistance are the same concerns that created these programs. In the case of both amendments, the influence of Iranian proxies in Iraq and Lebanon motivated policymaker’s concerns for prohibiting U.S. foreign assistance in these countries.
U.S. foreign assistance in Iraq and Lebanon supports institutions and programs that create accountability, transparency, and stability across government and civil society. Removing this assistance would only give Iranian proxies a freer hand. Our foreign military financing to both countries, which accounts for much of the criticism despite only being one aspect of a broader program, has not resulted in any end-use monitoring violations and critically works to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS and the further consolidation of Hezbollah’s influence over Lebanon.
These programs are crucial elements of American strategy to build the conditions for a more stable Middle East. Whenever House Republicans return to the business of governing, they must also address this debate responsibly and coherently with regard to U.S. foreign policy objectives. Otherwise, we will only see more irresponsible policy proposals written as a means of self-promotion for House Republicans. If the MAGA House Republicans get their way and pass one of these ill-conceived proposals, no presidential administration could prepare to meaningfully address damage to America’s reputation, influence, and national security.