By Ryan Dukeman
Until very recently, “democratic backsliding” was a term consigned mostly to the annals of academic theory, concerned chiefly with perceived “democracy deficits” in multilateral organizations rather than the quality of governance in advanced economies. Indeed, from the mid-1990s onward, respected political scientists and world leaders were proclaiming “the End of History” and a “New World Order” – global convergence to Western-style liberal democratic capitalism. The recent past, however, now seems like a distant memory, with populist nationalism and tech-fueled authoritarianism sweeping the globe, leading to the decay of democratic institutions and the rule of law in places like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, China, and Egypt.
Rather than try to halt this trend, however, the Trump administration has sought to slash executive-branch initiatives that in the past provided robust assistance to the organic fostering of democracy abroad.
By taking a backseat on democratic development abroad, the administration has created both an opening and an urgency for Congress to fill the void. Fortunately, Congress has a successful historical model to follow – the House Democracy Partnership (HDP), a bipartisan commission created by the House in the mid-2000s. The HDP, and its 1990s predecessor, the Frost-Solomon Task Force (FS), provide an example of a relatively small legislative diplomacy initiative that has had an outsized impact in strengthening global democratic institutions, and provides a template for how party leaders in the House and Senate could work to counterbalance the Trump administration’s downsizing of democratic/governance development abroad.
The Frost-Solomon Task Force, led by Rep. Martin Frost and Speaker Tom Foley, worked to directly involve members and staff in parliamentary development efforts in newly-liberalizing states in Eastern Europe. Operating outside the “usual bureaucracy,” as Rep. Frost described it, FS acted as a then-unprecedented legislative branch diplomatic agency. Over the next decade, and again during the mid-2000s democratization wave, FS and HDP worked to advance democratic institutions in fledgling democracies. With a small staff and an annual budget of $2 million, HDP eventually worked with 10 partner parliaments to provide equipment and material resources like computers and books, and to conduct peer-to-peer legislative exchanges on issues like legislative operations, researching and drafting bills, structuring committees, and constituent services.
Working in conjunction with, but (critically) independent of executive branch agencies like the State Department or USAID, FS and HDP went beyond congressional “junkets” and provided the legislative branch an opportunity to directly impact the quality of democratic governance abroad. The commission’s work included Congressional Research Service (CRS) support for parliamentarians in Eastern Europe on legislative research and policy analysis; Congressional Budget Office (CBO) seminars on legislative budgeting; coalition-building support in Kenya after a constitutional rewrite; support for female parliamentarians on gender-sensitive legislative design and inclusive leadership; pluralist constituent support in newly-integrated democracies; congressional Chief Technology Officer support to the Colombian House of Representatives to develop a system in which members can track constituent services; and physical infrastructure support.
These investments, seminars, and exchanges have accomplished far more than congressional “fact-finding” trips, and have meaningfully impacted the quality of foreign democratic governance. Through peer-to-peer legislative exchanges, HDP has helped new parliaments transition from puppet instruments of the government to a meaningful check on executive power, training hundreds of members of parliaments in areas like committee operations, military oversight, pluralist representation, and constituent outreach. Technical assistance and capacity-building at the staff level have bolstered the “legislative support services” (research, drafting, analysis, and records) without which no modern parliament can effectively do its job. Finally, physical infrastructure investments have had an outsized practical impact for their small cost by providing parliaments with the most basic elements they need to function – electricity, a library, office space, etc.
Beyond the direct impacts such initiatives have had on the quality of foreign governance, FS and HDP also had the ripple effect of helping to reprioritize governance issues in international development programming across the U.S. government. This second-order influence on the authorization and appropriations process quickly translated into results, and can do so again today in a climate of declining foreign assistance budgets. For example, in 1996, just six years after FS’s founding, governance had instead become a “major focus and priority of USAID-funded projects,” rapidly raising the budgets for and profile of democratic development in America’s development portfolio.
In the case of legislative diplomacy for democracy promotion, history shows that it is most effective when narrowly tailored to areas where Congress has institutional expertise – areas such as parliamentary operations, legislative design/research/analysis, oversight of the executive branch, and appropriations. Research on the evolution of legislative diplomacy institutions has also shown that its effectiveness depends on its backing by influential legislative champions who can institutionalize initiatives early on to ensure their continuity. For example, Rep. Martin Frost’s connections to the Speaker, the Appropriations Committee, and the Rules Committee enabled him to realize his vision for the Frost-Solomon Task Force. The FS was officially dissolved in 1996, but in 2005, Reps. David Price and David Dreier collaborated to revive and expand its mission and formed the House Democracy Partnership. The HDP was established, and continually renewed, as part of the House Rules package, which has allowed its work to become institutionalized and grow. Reps. David Price and Peter Roskam, HDP’s current co-chairmen, have sought more leadership backing, and the lack of democracy promotion initiatives under the Trump administration should galvanize congressional leadership support.
Given that President Trump and the populist wing of the Republican party diverge from an otherwise bipartisan establishment consensus in favor of democracy promotion, this field is particularly ripe for increased congressional activism. Today, however, the threat to democracy is even closer to home than it was in Frost’s day, with some scholars now suggesting meaningful democratic backsliding is occurring in central Europe, the UK, and even the United States. A strengthened HDP today, then, would take the lessons of the past but adapt to more pressing present realities. Rather than fledgling new democracies ripe for expansion, it might well consider the more modest, but more pressing, task of preserving democracy in middle-income countries such as in former Soviet satellite states, Kenya, and Tunisia.
Beyond a refreshed list of partner countries, a modern HDP should be bicameral, to reflect the combined wisdom of House and Senate members and to provide more nuanced insights into how both chambers operate. This change would also reflect a greater sense of legitimacy and urgency, as it would allow senators to lend their expertise to the crisis in global democracy. Finally, partner legislatures from the OECD or G7 could join together to create a multilateral HDP, moving far beyond existing interparliamentary forums to make a genuinely multilateral legislative development agency. This multilateral commitment, backed by Congress, could well galvanize a renewed push for robust democratic institutions across the world.
If members of both parties wish, as they’ve previously expressed, to fill the growing gap left by the administration in democracy promotion, the work of the FS and the HDP can provide a useful roadmap for what a successful legislative diplomatic institution would look like, and the benefits it can confer when properly structured. As Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) noted during the first year of the Trump administration, Congress “will have to take a much more active role than usual in foreign policy,” and indeed in diplomacy itself. Whether that continues to take the form of House Speaker Paul Ryan playing diplomatic clean-up with bedrock allies like Britain and Australia, or branches into a more proactive approach to compensate for diminished executive interest in democracy promotion, the FS and HDP can provide a model for congressional-driven development and diplomacy fit for today’s political and budgetary climates.
Ryan Dukeman is a 2017 graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. His previous work has focused on congressional reform, foreign policy governance, and comparative democratic institutions.