Friday April 18, 2014
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18.04.2014
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Yoram Ettinger

Israel and the U.S. congressional elections

During a June 15, 2012 seminar at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bill Schneider, a leading expert on U.S. politics, reaffirmed that both chambers of Congress play a key role in determining U.S.-Israel relations.

In 1990, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Henry Garrett asked Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, to delete from the proposed defense bill an amendment stipulating the upgrade of the port of Haifa for the benefit of the Sixth Fleet. Senator, I am the Secretary of the Navy, and I know that the Sixth Fleet does not need the upgrade.

Inouye retorted: "Mr. Secretary, according to the U.S. Constitution, I supervise you, and I have determined that the Sixth Fleet would benefit from such an upgrade. Inouyes position derived from the end of the Cold War which eroded the importance of the port of Naples, and from the gathering sandstorms from the Persian Gulf (leading to Iraqs invasion of Kuwait) which enhanced the significance of the port of Haifa for the Sixth Fleet. The port of Haifa was upgraded despite opposition by President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker who orchestrated Secretary Garrett's appeal.

The recent turmoil in Egypt has exposed the uncertainty surrounding U.S.-Egypt relations and the reliability of the port of Alexandria, enhancing the significance of the Israeli ports of Haifa and Ashdod to the Sixth Fleet. It underscored the vitality of Congress as a joint-front-seat-driver in setting the national security agenda.

In November 2012, Americans will elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives, 33 U.S. senators and thousands of state and local elected officials, some of whom will eventually reach Capitol Hill. According to a July 23, 2012 Rasmussen national poll, since mid-2009, Republican congressional candidates have been systematically more popular than Democrats. Of all likely voters, 43 percent would vote for Republican congressional candidates, if the election were held today, while 40% would elect Democrats.

Most polls forecast a strong possibility of a sustained although moderately eroded Republican House majority (currently at 242 Republicans to 190 Democrats and 3 vacancies). Democrats need a robust tailwind which is not currently in sight to regain the House majority. At the same time, the Democratic majority in the Senate (53:47) is vulnerable. However, the number of toss-up Senate races such as Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, New Mexico and Hawaii is relatively large. Therefore, the race for the Senate majority which may indicate the winner of the presidency is wide open.

House and Senate majorities will be greatly affected by the presidential approval rating on election day. Will Obama be a coattail president, sweeping his party to victories, as he did in 2008 (69% approval rating), or will he be an anchor-chained president, dragging his party to defeats, as he did in 2010 (46%), and as Presidents George H. W. Bush (34%), Jimmy Carter (37%) and Gerald Ford (45%) did in 1992, 1980 and 1976 respectively?

The fate of congressional races also depends on the number of Democratic and Republican seats up for re-election. The more seats a party holds, the more vulnerable the party. Therefore, the 23 seats on the ballot currently held by Democrats as opposed to only 10 Republican-held seats pose a threat to the Democratic majority. However, the substantial Republican House majority which exposes more Republican seats provides an opportunity for a Democratic gain in the House.

Congressional retirements may also indicate an electoral trend, in addition to reflecting political aspirations or fatigue. Thus, the six Democratic versus three Republican retirements from the Senate, and the retirement ratio of 15 Democrats to 11 Republicans in the House, could reflect legislators own assessments of the odds in the November election.

The outcome of the Congressional races will, also, be determined by the turnout rate and by the appeal of the individual candidates to the Independents, who account for some 40% of the electorate. Usually, the Independents include swing voters, switch-overs and undecided voters. The turnout rate will be influenced by the enthusiasm and frustration factors (e.g., anti-establishment, Hope & Change, shattered 2008 hopes) generated by the presidential and congressional candidates.

To realize the significance of the November 2012 congressional elections, one should be aware that Congress is the most powerful legislature in the world. This is the co-equal, co-determining branch of the U.S. government, the most authentic representative of the American people, which has the muscle when it chooses to exercise it  to initiate, amend, suspend and overrule presidential policies.

International observers, and especially friends of Israel, should focus on the congressional races. When it comes to third down and ten yards to go, Israel has no better, trusted and effective friend than both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

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