House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce announced his retirement Monday, joining a wave of fellow senior Republicans in the House and Senate declining to seek re-election in a tough political environment.
The 13-term California lawmaker had only one year remaining on his term as committee chairman, but his retirement announcement nonetheless casts a spotlight on his potential successors, two of whom have histories of bucking the party.
Reps. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey and Dana Rohrabacher of California have more seniority on the committee than the current chairman, but leadership nonetheless passed them over for the gavel in 2012, opting instead for a more conventional choice in Royce.
Smith, who leads the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, joined with just 19 other House Republicans last May in voting against repealing the 2010 health care law on the grounds that it would “hurt disabled persons … the elderly and the working poor.” He also supports labor’s right to organize as a “human rights issue” and was the only House Republican to back keeping an Obama administration rule in place that governed small streams and wetlands.
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Matt Hadro, a spokesman for Smith, confirmed his boss is interested in the committee’s top GOP slot and said the issues that kept Republican leadership from supporting Smith for chairman in late 2012 have been resolved.
Smith appears fairly conventional compared to the next runner-up for the job: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s No. 1 congressional booster — Rohrabacher.
The 15-term congressman, who leads the Europe, Eurasia & Emerging Threats Subcommittee, has routinely defended Putin against attacks by fellow lawmakers and has said the United States needs to cooperate with the Kremlin to defeat radical Islamist terrorism — a position President Donald Trump has also espoused.
The Washington Post last year obtained audio of a 2016 closed-door meeting of House GOP leaders in which Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” McCarthy subsequently clarified he was joking.
Rohrabacher also met last year with far-right French presidential candidate Marine LePen, whose candidacy was strongly pushed by Russian government-linked disinformation efforts, and with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who remains holed up at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
As questions swirl about his successor, Royce made clear Monday that he plans an active agenda for the remainder of his term.
“I want to focus fully on the urgent threats facing our nation, including: the brutal, corrupt and dangerous regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran, Vladimir Putin’s continued efforts to weaponize information to fracture western democracies, and growing terrorist threats in Africa and Central Asia,” Royce said in a statement. “With this in mind, and with the support of my wife Marie, I have decided not to seek reelection in November.”
The White House has announced its intention to nominate Marie Royce as assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs. House Foreign Affairs has jurisdiction over the State Department, raising potential conflict of interest questions.
In his five years as committee chair, Royce has differentiated himself from his predecessor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, with his less-heated rhetoric against the Obama administration and close working relationship with his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Eliot L. Engel of New York.
Royce has authored multiple North Korea sanctions laws and has pushed for improvements to U.S. international broadcasting efforts, which include Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
In a statement, McCarthy praised his “good friend” and fellow Californian, whose track record on human rights he highlighted.
“While Ed can look back on many years of devoted service to his constituents and our great state of California as well as all of his accomplishments as a legislator and chairman, he deserves particular praise for his years promoting human rights, especially in the fight to end human trafficking and protect the most vulnerable people around the world,” he said.
Royce won re-election in 2016 with over 57 percent of the vote. But he was facing a tough race this year, particularly with passage of the Republican tax overhaul, which is unpopular with many Californians because of the changes it makes to rules on deductions for property and state and local income taxes.
Joining Royce in retirement next year are several other top GOP foreign policy lawmakers including Ros-Lehtinen and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee. These lawmakers reliably advocate a muscular, internationalist and even interventionist American foreign policy. It is not yet clear if their GOP replacements will do the same.