Foreign capitals go into a frenzy when President Trump tweets and makes outlandish comments that upset longstanding norms and complicate bilateral relationships with Washington.
The capricious nature and decisions of the 45th president have raised the stakes for robust engagement with the United States. One solution that is paying dividends for allies like Australia is closer engagement with the US Congress.
Last week, Congress launched a bipartisan Friends of Australia Caucus whose 70 members will serve as Australia's "eyes and ears" on US policy and offer visiting Australian leaders a captive audience made up of those who value the US-Australia alliance.
The caucus is a dual product of Congress' power as an independent branch of the US government, and Australia's pursuit of multiple avenues of influence into the full spectrum of America's political system. It is co-chaired by Dick Durbin (Democrat Illinois) and Roy Blunt (Republican Missouri), senior senators who serve in their parties' leadership, and Representatives Joe Courtney (Democrat Connecticut) and Mike Gallagher (Republican Wisconsin). Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton was in Washington last week to launch the caucus at an event that was badged as part of the "100 years of mateship" between the United States and Australia.
The formation of the caucus is a significant win for ambassador Joe Hockey, who worked overtime on Capitol Hill to translate the overwhelming Congressional response to the infamous Trump-Turnbull phone call into tangible benefits for Australia.
An earlier version of the caucus was launched in 2003 to assist the congressional passage of the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. The caucus helped secure bipartisan support for the trade deal, an E3 visa that gives special status to Australian professionals in the US, and bolstered awareness of Australian political and economic affairs among members of Congress.
If the reinvigorated caucus has anywhere near the impact of its previous incarnation — and the seniority and scope of its membership gives reason for optimism — it will be of considerable benefit to Australia.
For a serious congressional caucus to be impactful, it needs an agenda that seizes the attention of its membership, else it might drift towards the policy relevance of the Shellfish Caucus.
The first agenda item for the Australia Caucus should be the establishment of a formal exchange system between rank-and-file members of Congress and Australian MPs, facilitated by the US-Australia Parliamentary Friendship Group.
In the past, members of Congress have been hesitant to visit Australia for fear that their constituents might think time spent in a stereotypical holiday destination was not serious work. This perception runs so deep in Washington that when President Obama came to Australia in 2011 he flew directly to Canberra and then on to Darwin for meetings before leaving, assiduously avoiding Sydney and the political risk associated with a photo on the harbour.
The caucus presents an opportunity to minimise this political risk. Members could participate in congressional delegations to Australia framed around the importance of the US-Australia bilateral relationship amid Asia's increasingly unstable strategic environment. Two events each year – one in Washington during the Australian parliamentary break in January, and a second in Canberra during the US congressional recess in August – would be a sensible way to bolster engagement between both legislatures and provide an ongoing reason for reciprocal visits.
But the Caucus will only ever be part of Australian outreach on Capitol Hill.
Australia can achieve much with a Congress that has the constitutional power and the political will to moderate President Trump's less helpful impulses.
Ministerial engagement with Congress is the norm. In the past month, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met with no less than seven members of Congress, Defence Minister Marise Payne met Alaska senator Dan Sullivan, Immigration Minister Dutton was in Washington for the Caucus launch, and Trade and Investment Minister Steven Ciobo will be on Capitol Hill next week. The embassy and relevant Australian ministers are currently working with senators John McCain and Cory Gardner on separate bills that would shape aspects of President Trump's engagement with Asia.
In coming months, Congress will vote on issues of critical importance to Australia, including the Pentagon's budget, a proposed 30 per cent cut to the State Department, Trump's appointments to both agencies, and any new sanctions on North Korea, Iran or other countries.
The US government is far more than the colourful President or his tweets. Engagement with the Congress is re-emerging as an especially valuable aspect of the US-Australia relationship.