Commentary / World

The U.S. midterm elections and Japan

by Glen Fukushima

The U.S. midterm elections of Nov. 6 are attracting worldwide attention because they will constitute the first “national referendum” on the presidency of Donald Trump.

Four results are possible: (1) both the House of Representatives and the Senate remain with the Republican Party in the majority; (2) the House turns majority Democratic but the Senate remains majority Republican; (3) the Senate turns majority Democratic but the House remains majority Republican, and (4) both the House and the Senate turn majority Democratic. With less than a month to go, it appears that (2) has the highest probability and that (3) has the lowest probability.

In the House — where all 435 seats are up for election — Democrats need to flip 23 seats to gain the majority. This appears possible, although gerrymandering, voter suppression and unlimited campaign financing made possible by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision all favor Republican candidates.

In the Senate — where Republicans have a 51-49 majority — 35 seats are up for election, of which 26 have Democratic incumbents and nine have Republican incumbents. To gain a majority in the Senate, Democrats need to add a net two seats to their current 49. This is difficult, but not impossible. Some of the states where Democrats have a chance to flip seats include Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas. On the other hand, states where incumbent Democrats are vulnerable and Republicans may be able to flip seats include Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia.

Election results

If both the House and the Senate remain majority Republican, Trump will no doubt claim that the American voters have given him a “mandate” to continue the policies he pursued during his first two years in office. His ability to do this will be enhanced with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as the new Supreme Court justice to replace Anthony Kennedy, who retired this year. Throughout his career as an attorney and especially in the confirmation hearings to become a justice of the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh has shown himself to be a staunch conservative who will support Trump on such issues as executive privilege, Obamacare, immigration, taxes, deregulation, abortion, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, criminal justice, unions, campaign financing and the environment, etc.

If the House turns majority Democratic, this will lead to the use of subpoena power to launch investigations into the president’s finances, ties to Russia, potential conflicts of interest, potential obstruction of justice and other issues that Democrats have alleged since the 2016 election but have been ignored by congressional Republicans. Many of these issues are related to those being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller, whose final report is expected to be issued after the midterm elections.

Some have advocated that a Democratic-led House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the president if sufficient evidence is uncovered by the Mueller investigation. However, given the high hurdle that at least two-thirds of the Senate needs to convict the president to remove him from office, Democrats will be cautious in weighing the impeachment option.

If the Senate turns majority Democratic, this will allow Democrats to scrutinize and vet more strictly the president’s nomination of candidates for senior administration positions (assistant secretary and above, including ambassadors) and for the federal judiciary (94 district courts, 13 courts of appeal and the Supreme Court). This would create a significant check on the president’s ability to hire the people he wants.

In sum, if the House or the Senate, or both, turn majority Democratic, it will for the first time since the advent of the Trump administration allow for the checks and balances that we have come to expect among the three branches of the U.S. federal government. This will have significant implications not only for domestic policy but also for America’s relations with other countries, including Japan.

Implications for Japan

Thanks in part to the initiatives taken by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately after the U.S. election of November 2016, relations between the United States and Japan during the first year of the Trump administration were far better than had been feared by many.

In particular, the “U.S.-Japan Economic Dialogue” between Vice President Mike Pence and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso was a brilliant move by Japan to forestall trade negotiations between the two countries. But by the spring of this year, the U.S. patience had worn thin, and in their April 17-18 meeting, Trump and Abe agreed to a new framework for “free, fair and reciprocal” trade talks under U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi.

Following the Abe-Trump summit meeting in New York on Sept. 26, Japan and the U.S. issued a joint statement that was revealing, especially when compared to the subsequent comments about the meeting made by officials of the two governments. First, Abe emphasized that the new talks would not lead to a free trade agreement, since the Japanese government’s position is that it wants the U.S. to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral, not bilateral, arrangement. Second, Abe emphasized that this would be a trade agreement on goods, limited only to goods. Third, Abe explained that in these negotiations the U.S. would not ask for more than what was agreed to under “previous economic partnership agreements.” Finally, he emphasized that while the negotiations were in progress, the U.S. would not impose tariffs on Japanese automobile imports under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

In contrast to the above, Pence said in a speech in Washington on Oct. 4, “We’re forging new trade deals, on a bilateral basis … we will soon begin negotiating a historic bilateral free trade agreement with Japan.” Second, the joint statement states: “The United States and Japan will enter into negotiations … for a United States-Japan Trade Agreement on goods, as well as on other key areas including services.”

Third, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said on Oct. 4, “We think frankly that we are a better ally of Japan than the European Union is and we would expect to have an equal or better deal than Japan gave the European Union regarding agriculture.” And Lighthizer has repeatedly called on Japan to unilaterally slash its tariffs on agricultural imports. Finally, the joint statement stipulates that “(the U.S. and Japan) refrain from taking measures against the spirit of this joint statement during the process of these consultations,” but the words “measures” and “spirit” are not defined.

If Republicans maintain their majority in the House and the Senate on Nov. 6, the Trump administration will be free to pursue policies it initiated before the elections, including the new trade negotiations with Japan. If they lose their majority in the House or the Senate or both, chances are high that the administration will be so busy dealing with a contentious Congress that it will be severely constrained in pursuing policies it initiated during its first two years in office.

For this and other reasons, the results of the U.S. midterm elections of Nov. 6 will be felt far beyond the borders of the U.S. and will also carry important implications for the U.S. presidential election of 2020.

Glen S. Fukushima is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. He served as deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Japan and China and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.