The new 116th Congress, with its diverse pool of new members ushered in by a record number of voters, has an opportunity to demonstrate that human rights remain a priority for the American people.
For years, the U.S. has promoted respect for these rights, even if it has not always abided by the laws and treaties that protect them. This has advanced the long-term strategic interests of the U.S., as well as peace and security in the rest of the world. After all, these rights — to be free from discrimination, to have due process, to have an adequate standard of living and to participate in free and fair elections — benefit not just Americans but everyone, everywhere.
President Donald Trump, with his “America First” agenda, has all but scrapped this approach. To varying degrees, all U.S. presidents have downplayed or overlooked human rights concerns when other interests were in play. But Trump has gutted support for them by embracing abusive foreign leaders who are jailing, torturing and killing dissidents, by selling weapons to militaries committing massive war crimes, and by undermining international institutions and courts that seek justice for some of the world’s worst atrocities. At home, Trump has turned his back on refugees, detained immigrant children, and rolled back regulations that protect women’s health, LGBT rights, and the water we drink.
Members of this new Congress have an opportunity to reverse course, reiterate the importance of respect for human rights, and make clear that the current path is not acceptable.
They can do this by protecting gains made under the Affordable Care Act, which has expanded access to health care for millions of Americans, and ensuring that coverage includes the full range of sexual and reproductive health care services. They can pass even stronger criminal justice reform that eliminates mandatory minimum sentencing and the racial disparities that permeate the criminal justice, education and health systems.
They should also protect Dreamers, and hold oversight hearings into family separation and dangerous detention conditions. To help protect and restore the right to vote in the federal elections, they should pass the Democracy Restoration Act, and hold oversight hearings on voter suppression tactics.
Bipartisan legislation has been proposed to reverse the transgender military ban — a discriminatory policy that met with immediate opposition from military leadership, lawmakers in both parties, the public, and federal courts. They should pass this legislation, as well as the Equality Act, which would curb the administration’s wider efforts to roll back federal protections of transgender rights.
Use power of the purse to shape foreign policy
On foreign policy, although the executive branch has predominant power, Congress can be a vital check while also vigorously promoting a foreign policy that not only defends but also safeguards basic rights. Congress can let both allies and adversaries know that even if the White House isn’t invested in human rights promotion overseas, the rest of America is.
Congress can also aggressively influence U.S. foreign policy by using the power of the purse to ensure that U.S. programs and policies overseas align more explicitly with the promotion of basic rights. And building on bipartisan support in the current Senate, Congress should permanently repeal the “Global Gag rule,” which restricts the use of U.S. funds for programs critical for women’s health care abroad.
It should also take up legislation in other areas on which the administration has failed to engage constructively, including forced political re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang region and the need to make human rights a key element of US relations with Saudi Arabia. Systematically blocking weapons sales to repressive leaders would rein in President Trump’s commercially centered approach to arms transfers while also sending a clear message: the US will not be complicit in other countries’ war crimes.
Congress needs to course-correct on rights
Regular oversight hearings should explore the administration’s uncritical support of autocratic and abusive governments, including in Hungary, Poland and Thailand. Congress should look at the State Department’s move to strike reproductive rights from its annual global human rights report, and the troubling likelihood that Sudan will be removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Finally, regular meetings with and statements to support independent activists, journalists and lawyers as well as overseas travel are all ways Congress can revive a more inclusive and rights-respecting foreign policy.
As lawmakers lay out their agenda and attempt to repair the damage done over the last two years, a crucial part of their leadership requires asserting basic rights as a core policy component — whether domestic or foreign. That's not just the right thing to do, it is in America’s best interests.