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New Committee Chairs Bring Check on Trump Foreign Policy in House, Support in Senate

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One major consequence of the 2018 midterm elections — in which Democrats won a historic popular vote victory and gained 40 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — will be the newfound power Congress has to dictate, to an extent, U.S. foreign policy.

As Brian McKeon and Caroline Tess recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, Congress has “the power of the purse, the power to declare war, and the power to regulate the armed forces, trade, and immigration. Congress can fund programs it supports and withhold money from those it doesn’t. It can block initiatives that require legislation and use investigations to expose and curtail executive-branch wrongdoing.”

That last part is especially likely to affect President Trump. Observers expect a Democratic-led House to open a number of investigations into the president and administration officials. Under new leadership, the House Intelligence Committee may reopen an investigation into collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

There are dozens of other high-profile controversies the House could target, although it likely won’t do so all at once. Among the issues it could scrutinize, according to a list compiled Nov. 12 by Axios, are: Trump’s tax returns; the family’s business ties; the hush money paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels; the use of personal emails; Cabinet members’ abuse of travel and other perks; the policy of separating families at the border; the travel ban; the hurricane response in Puerto Rico; and the discussion of classified information at Mar-a-Lago.

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That’s just a partial list, but even a handful of investigations would keep the administration — already stretched thin — tied up in legal matters potentially for the rest of Trump’s term.

The legal headaches may be bad news for the White House, but they provide Congress with an opportunity to reassert itself into foreign policy debates that have thus far been the domain of an unpredictable president.

And there will be plenty of fresh faces to help shape America’s global agenda.

The influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee will see a new chair take the gavel after the retirement of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has chaired the committee since 2015. A prominent Trump foe, Corker most recently railed against Trump’s ambivalence over whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying that if the crown prince was in front of a jury, “he would have a unanimous [guilty] verdict in 30 minutes.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is also retiring after six years on the committee. In his farewell letter to colleagues, Royce urged lawmakers to maintain U.S. leadership on the world stage and reach out across the aisle. Among the issues he hopes the committee continues to address are: maintaining pressure on North Korea, Iran, Syria and Russia; standing by America’s European partners; investing in diplomacy, development and defense; advancing global health; empowering women and girls; demanding accountability for war crimes; and championing wildlife conservation.

Whether it’s wildlife trafficking, cyberspace threats or democracy promotion, new members will hold a range of views on U.S. policies overseas — and three committees in particular will allow them to express those views.

Here are the expected incoming chairs of the foreign policy, intelligence and military-related committees in the Senate and House:

a2.committees.risch.storySenate Foreign Relations Committee

Likely Chair: Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho)

Likely Ranking Member: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)

James Risch, who holds the most seniority on the committee after Corker, is expected to fill the role of chairman in the wake of Corker’s retirement this year. Initially a Trump skeptic who supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Risch has become a defender of Trump’s agenda. In November, Risch voted against a resolution to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s controversial military campaign in Yemen — despite broad bipartisan support for the measure, including from Sens. Corker, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

a2.committees.menendez.storyThe second-term senator and former Idaho governor has been recognized as the “most conservative” senator in the U.S. by the National Journal for two years in a row. He has supported Trump’s decision to withdraw from both the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. He’s also a vocal advocate of the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea. And unlike Corker, he’s vowed to air his grievances against Trump in private, not in public.

Meanwhile, former Republican presidential nominee and newly elected Sen. Mitt Romney from Utah is reportedly angling for the seat left open on the Foreign Relations Committee by Corker’s exit. Trump had briefly considered him for secretary of state before choosing Rex Tillerson because of Romney’s hawkish stance on Russia, according to one source.

On the Democratic side, Bob Menendez of New Jersey is likely to remain the ranking member, despite earlier federal corruption charges that were eventually dropped in 2018. The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez is a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, including the Dream Act, and a vocal critic of authoritarian regimes in China and Russia.


a2.committees.burr.storySenate Select Committee on Intelligence

Likely Chair: Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) 

Likely Ranking Member: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) 

Richard Burr, now in his third term in the Senate, is expected to continue chairing the committee, while Mark Warner is expected to remain ranking member and vice chairman of the committee.

Unlike its counterpart in the House, the Senate Committee on Intelligence under Burr has made a purposeful effort to avoid even the appearance of partisanship. The committee publicly broke with the House Intelligence Committee in May when Burr and Warner said in a joint statement that their committee agrees with U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment that the Russian government tried to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

a2.committees.warner.storyIn November, Burr said in an interview with Bloomberg News that the committee’s own Russia investigation will extend into 2019 for as long as six months while the committee continues questioning witnesses in closed-door hearings. Warner, a former Virginia governor, also said in early December that the committee has made multiple criminal referrals to special counsel Robert Mueller.

In addition, Burr and Warner have worked together to address the litany of scandals that have plagued tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, including massive privacy breaches and the spread of Russian misinformation on social media. At an August 2018 hearing, Burr said that Russia’s cyber campaign during the 2016 election is as serious as “terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, espionage or regional instability.”


Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

a2.committees.johnson.storyLikely Chair: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) 

Likely Ranking Member: Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) 

Current chairman Ron Johnson, a former longtime businessman, is expected to stay on as head of the committee. Most recently, he voted against the Senate bill to remove U.S. forces from the conflict in Yemen. He’s also a sharp critic of Russian meddling in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s reported violations of nuclear arms treaties.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) lost her close race for re-election in November, opening up the ranking member position on this committee charged with oversight of U.S. election security ahead of the 2020 presidential election, among other issues. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) also lost her re-election bid, opening another spot on this committee for Democrats.

While Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is next in seniority, he is expected to stay on as ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, according to a Nov. 16 report by Sam Mintz in Politico.

a2.committees.peters.storySen. Gary Peters has expressed his interest to become the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. A former investment advisor and U.S. Navy reservist who was first elected to the House in 2008, Peters has primarily had the economy and the financial sector among his top priorities. But election security is likely to become a seminal issue for the Homeland Committee heading into 2019 and 2020.

In August, the Senate Rules Committee abruptly postponed its markup of the bipartisan Secure Elections Act, introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), both members of the committee.

“This is an important bill that I will not let fail. I look forward to working with members and groups that have technical concerns with the text of the Secure Elections Act as we continue to walk through its passage,” Lankford previously told The Diplomat in a statement.

Harris, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential contender, has also expressed frustration with the delay, which comes at the request of the White House, she was told. However, some Democrats are now backing a different proposal spearheaded by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that is widely seen as tougher than the Secure Elections Act, further putting the issue of election security in limbo.


a2.committees.inhofe.storySenate Armed Services Committee

Likely Chair: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) 

Likely Ranking Member: Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)

James Inhofe, a self-described “unabashed conservative” who served in the Army, is expected to continue chairing the committee, while Jack Reed, a West Point graduate who also served in the Army, is expected to remain in his role as ranking member.

Beyond the two leadership posts, both the Foreign Relations and the Armed Services committees may be stages on which likely 2020 presidential contenders hope to make a mark. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sits on Foreign Relations while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — who recently delivered a foreign policy address outlining her priorities — sits on Armed Services and its Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

a2.committees.reed.storyOver the summer, the committee supported a national defense budget that authorized $716 billion for fiscal 2019, including base spending of $639 for the Defense Department and $69 billion for overseas contingency operations.

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While seniority is more ingrained in the culture and workings of the Senate, the speaker of the House and the House majority leader have much more direct influence over committee assignments in their chamber. Under House rules, the members of each party meet and vote to nominate members to each committee. The number of members on each committee — and the party ratio of each committee — is subject to negotiations between the majority and minority leaders (except for the Committee on Ethics, which is mandated under House rules to contain five members from each party).

House Republicans selected most of their ranking members on Nov. 30. House Democrats have yet to decide all of their chairs as of press time.


House Foreign Affairs Committee

a2.committees.engel.storyLikely Chair: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY16) 

Ranking Member: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX10)

Eliot Engel and his former Republican counterpart on the committee, Ed Royce, generally worked well together to preserve funding for diplomacy, rebuking Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the State Department. Both also took a tough stance on Russia.

Now set to take over from Royce as chairman, Engel, seen by some on the left as a hawk, is already drawing up a list of ways to go after Trump’s foreign policy — starting at the top. Engel told The Washington Post that he plans to call Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to appear before the committee, after Pompeo was accused of “snubbing” the committee’s invitation to testify earlier last year. He also plans to investigate the Trump Organization’s business interests in Russia and how these might have affected foreign policy decisions by the White House.

But there may also be room for agreement between Engel and Trump. He was one of only 13 House Democrats who opposed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. A staunch supporter of Israel, Engel also praised the administration’s controversial decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

a2.committees.mccaul.story“I hope to work collaboratively with the administration on a range of issues. But respect is a two-way street, and the administration needs to respect Congress’s responsibility to conduct oversight,” Engel told The Diplomat in an emailed statement.

Michael McCaul, the previous chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, beat out Reps. Joe Wilson (R-SC2) and Ted Yoho (R-FL3) — as well as his senior colleague Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ4) — for the position of ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

McCaul is a former federal prosecutor who served as chief of counterterrorism and national security in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Texas before being elected to Congress. On Capitol Hill, he has been an outspoken skeptic of negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program and a supporter of bolstering border security while reducing waste at the Department of Homeland Security.

He has also sounded the alarm about the spread of Chinese influence in the West, including through its appropriation of American technology and its state-funded “Confucius Institutes” on U.S. college campuses. In an April 2018 Foreign Policy op-ed, he called for the institutes in America to be shut down.


House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

a2.committees.schiff.storyLikely Chair: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA28) 

Likely Ranking Member: Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA22) 

Many have noted how partisan this committee has become under its current chairman, Devin Nunes, a Trump loyalist who has stoked controversy for, among other things, publicly releasing what Democrats allege is a misleading memo accusing the FBI and Justice Department of surveillance abuse.

In March, House Intelligence Committee Republicans unilaterally declared an end to the committee’s yearlong investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The 150-page report claimed to have found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Democrats on the committee, who were not able to contribute to the report, cried foul and went to work drafting their own memo.

Then-ranking member Adam Schiff told Olivia Victoria Gazis of CBS News about the GOP report that “sadly, it is little more than another Nunes memo in long form.”

“I can certainly say with confidence that there is significant evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russia. What I cannot say — because I don’t know what Bob Mueller knows — is whether that evidence rises to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt of conspiracy to violate U.S. election laws,” Schiff said at the time.

A former U.S. assistant attorney in Los Angeles, Schiff has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration and an early leading voice in claims that Trump’s team colluded with Russia — going so far as to call the president “compromised” because of his ties to Russia in a Dec. 4 op-ed in USA Today. He raised the possibility that Russian money was laundered through the Trump Organization and even suggested that Trump’s business links may have influenced his refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

a2.committees.nunes.storySchiff has also said that Trump’s use of Twitter to praise one witness who did not testify against him is “evidence” of obstruction of justice, which could be a hint as to how Schiff, and possibly other House Democrats, would pursue impeachment charges against Trump — via the president’s inflammatory tweets.

All of this has resulted in another Twitter tirade from Trump, in which he taunted Schiff as “little Adam Schitt.” Observers can expect the Trump-Schiff feud to continue heating up as the new chairman opens new investigations and begins calling witnesses.

House Intelligence Committee membership is one of the last to be decided. It is unclear if Nunes will stay on the committee as ranking member. There are grumblings from both Democratic and Republican officials that he has been the cause of the partisan rancor on the committee. One Democrat went so far as to say that because of his release of classified information, Nunes has “no credibility” with the intelligence community he is tasked with overseeing.

A staunch Trump ally, Nunes is also a senior Republican on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Whether or not he stays or moves to another role, he seeks to be an antagonist to the new Democratic majority, according to a Nov. 14 report by Kate Irby in McClatchy.

Three other Republican committee members — Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-SC4), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL27) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ2) — have retired from Congress, leaving several seats on this committee in play.


a2.committees.thompson.storyHouse Committee on Homeland Security

Likely Chair: Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS2) 

Ranking Member: Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL3) 

This committee has oversight of some of Trump’s most controversial policies, including immigration. Under Democratic leadership, that oversight is expected to become a lot more aggressive.

“We will do rigorous oversight” of the Department of Homeland Security, including the decision to use tear gas on migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, Bennie Thompson told The Washington Post in November. “As a nation of immigrants ourselves, we want to make sure that our process of immigration that includes asylum-seekers is constitutional and represents American values,” he said.

a2.committees.rogers.storyThompson is a longtime member of the committee, having been chair from 2007 to 2011 and ranking member since then. He is the dean of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, whose district includes the Mississippi Delta. From the Homeland Security Committee, he was a powerful advocate for the Gulf region in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, pressing for accountability of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Thompson has also pressed for more transparency in government and, along with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), introduced a bill in 2014 to limit the classification of documents and overhaul the security clearance system.

While Thompson is a progressive on Democratic priority issues but a moderate on matters of national security, Mike Rogers is a staunch conservative who has supported some of Trump’s most controversial moves, such as the anticipated U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June 2016, Rogers even called for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and, in January 2017, introduced the American Sovereignty Act of 2017 to formally begin that quixotic quest. He’s also sponsored legislation to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.


a2.committees.smith.storyHouse Armed Services Committee

Likely Chair: Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA9) 

Ranking Member: Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX13) 

The current ranking member, Adam Smith, and the current chairman, Mac Thornberry, are expected to switch roles.

Smith, a former prosecutor who served in the Washington State Senate before running for Congress, is active in centrist “New Democrats” organizations. He believes that fighting global poverty and reforming foreign assistance are key to improving national security.

A fifth-generation Texan, Thornberry served as deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under Ronald Reagan before being elected to the House in 1994. Six months before 9/11 terrorist attacks, Thornberry introduced a bill to create a new Department of Homeland Security that formed the basis of legislation signed into law by President Bush 20 months later.

a2.committees.thornberry.storyThe pair could be in for some clashes over military policy in the coming session. The Armed Services Committee has broad oversight of the military, meaning it could weigh in on Trump’s decision to send troops to the Mexican border. While Thornberry generally supports Trump’s immigration crackdown, he has suggested that he does not want the military to get stuck with the multimillion-dollar tab to secure the border, arguing that the funding should instead go to beef up U.S. Border Patrol.

Funding for the military will also be a point of contention.

Smith has said he wants to curb military spending, in part by eliminating waste and abuse, and his calls for an audit of the Pentagon echo those of Trump. Smith told McLatchy’s Kellen Browning on Nov. 11 that “it is my firm belief that, given the $22 trillion debt and trillion-dollar deficit produced by the Republicans’ tax cuts, the Pentagon is going to have less money in the future. We need to scrub the defense budget to better reflect that reality.”

Thornberry takes the opposite view. As committee chairman, he pushed to restore military readiness and beef up defense spending. Meanwhile, in the wake of a report finding that the Pentagon cannot account for $800 million in previous budget disbursements, Thornberry met with Trump, alongside incoming Senate Armed Services Chairman Inhofe, to urge the president not to cut $33 billion from the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget that the White House Budget Office has proposed.

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There is much Congress can do to initiate and influence foreign policy, from curtailing U.S. support of Saudi Arabia to slapping more sanctions on Russia to setting cybersecurity norms and rules of engagement. In addition to its traditional oversight role, Congress also controls the government’s purse strings, meaning it could cut off funding to military operations on the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, or play a bigger role in deciding arms deals, to Trump’s chagrin.

It remains to be seen, though, how the House will use its oversight powers — and whether the Republican-controlled Senate will act as a check on the House’s newfound ability to check the president.


About the Author

Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.

Last Edited on December 20, 2018