Three candidates shape vigorous contest for House Foreign Affairs gavel

Castro, Meeks and Sherman would each bring a change in focus to the committee

From left, Democratic Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Gregory W. Meeks of New York and Brad Sherman of California have all declared their candidacies to be the the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Bill Clark and Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)
From left, Democratic Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Gregory W. Meeks of New York and Brad Sherman of California have all declared their candidacies to be the the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Bill Clark and Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Posted August 31, 2020 at 11:37am

In the race to be the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the three candidates vary in their policy expertise, seniority, diversity and popularity within the Democratic caucus. However, no one lawmaker seems at this point to have checked all of the boxes to win decisively.

The Foreign Affairs competition is one of at least two Democratic caucus leadership contests set to take place after the November elections if Democrats maintain control of the House as expected. The outcome will determine who will replace chairmen who are either retiring or lost their primary election, as is the case with current Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York.

[Eliot Engel loses to Jamaal Bowman in New York primary]

Reps. Brad Sherman of California, Gregory W. Meeks of New York and Joaquin Castro of Texas have all declared their candidacies. The party elders in the race are Sherman, who has the most seniority, followed by Meeks. Castro, a four-term lawmaker, is the relative newcomer in the race and is pushing to open up the normally opaque committee chair selection process.

Regardless of who wins the race to succeed Engel, a soft-spoken sixteen-term member known for his preference for working cross-aisle and his unyielding support for Israel, one thing is certain — the 117th Congress will bring about notable changes for the committee.

The Contenders

If either Castro or Meeks wins, it is likely that Western Hemisphere issues will get more prominence within the overall committee. Both lawmakers have made promises to that effect.

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In an interview, Castro acknowledged that the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, under the leadership of Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., has held hearings on the root causes and challenges stemming from migration from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, “but as a full committee it has not gotten the attention that it deserves,” he said.

For his part, Meeks said he has long been ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the Democratic Party in focusing on Latin America.

In an interview, Meeks stressed his frequent travel to Latin American countries. “I’ve always had a much broader perspective … and had a broader focus. I’ve lived it. I’ve done it. I’ve not just talked about it.”

Meeks serves as the chair or co-chair of multiple congressional caucuses for South American countries, including Peru, Brazil and Colombia.

Both Meeks’ and Castro’s predisposition to focus more on Latin America issues have won them plaudits from up-and-coming lawmakers on the committee such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.

While Omar said she wasn’t ready to endorse anyone, she told CQ Roll Call, “Castro and Gregory Meeks are two members of the committee that I believe will be strong contenders and will bring an opportunity for policies that we haven’t prioritized to be prioritized in committee.”

If Sherman wins, expect hearings that push back against the increasingly bipartisan conventional wisdom in Washington that China is a growing maritime threat that should be strongly confronted at every opportunity.

In an interview, Sherman said he is deeply suspicious of arguments pushed by the Pentagon and “the military-industrial complex,” that a costly ramp-up of military spending is needed to push back against China’s expansionist territorial claims.

“I see us exaggerating the military conflict with China so as to justify the arms developments that are necessary to maintain an edge over China, the shipbuilding that is necessary to confront China and a tendency to look at the whole globe to find the conventional enemy,” said Sherman, who is a lawyer and a certified public accountant by training. “The overhyping is best exemplified by these little islets [in the South China Sea] where we’re told these are of critical strategic importance in the world because over $2 trillion worth of trade goes near them.”

Despite his opposition to military hardball tactics, Sherman has been one of the leaders in his caucus in highlighting Beijing’s human rights abuses, sponsoring measures to condemn and punish China for its anti-democratic crackdown on Hong Kong and widespread abuses against the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority in Western China.

Sherman is also known for his years of policy work on nuclear nonproliferation matters. But whereas a decade ago, that might have been a big part of his campaign platform, the word "nuclear" received nary a mention in his July letter to his Democratic colleagues announcing his candidacy for the gavel.Comparing voting positions

On previous high-profile national security votes, Sherman has made some hawkish decisions, including voting in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq over now-discredited fears about dictator Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

In comparison, Meeks, an eleven-term member, voted against the 2002 Iraq War authorization. Castro was not in office at the time.

Sherman also voted in 2015 against President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, while Meeks and Castro gave it their support.

“I think a lot of us put a great deal of stock in that agreement, and of course he voted against it and I voted for it,” Castro said of Sherman’s vote against the deal.

Sherman has since voted against GOP attempts to weaken or abandon the Iran deal.

There was a time, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when Democrats vied with Republicans to be seen as tough on defense issues. But in a sign of the changing times, Meeks, Sherman and Castro all voted this summer in favor of an unsuccessful amendment from Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., to the annual defense policy bill that would have required a 10 percent cut to the Pentagon’s budget.

Sherman’s hawkish record on Middle East issues and Meeks’ pro-business voting record, such as his 2015 vote in support of granting Obama expedited authorities in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have not endeared either lawmaker to progressive foreign policy groups.

Castro is seen to be courting progressive groups such as Demand Progress and Win Without War. He was the only candidate to take part in a foreign policy candidate forum held by the two groups on Aug. 28.  

History would be made if either Meeks or Castro is chosen to lead the committee. Meeks would be the first Black chairperson. Castro, who is the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, would be the first Mexican-American to lead the committee. Additionally, at age 45, he would be the youngest committee chairperson by far in the Democratic Caucus. The next youngest chairperson is House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., who is 55.

Policy chops

In his campaign, Sherman is emphasizing his tenure and experience with all facets of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s work. He has been on the committee for 24 years, including 17 years spent as either a chair or ranking member of a subcommittee. He has served on all six of the subcommittees.

But Sherman was already passed over once eight years ago in favor of Engel for the senior Democratic position on the committee. And he also missed out on his consolation prize — leadership of the Middle East subcommittee, where Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., surprised him by winning the ranking member spot.

In the years since those committee race losses — the result of residual bad feelings from a bruising primary campaign against then-House Foreign Affairs ranking member Howard Berman of California — Sherman said he has worked hard to regain favor by doing things such as helping scores of his Democratic colleagues design and implement their mail and email programs.

“Ten years ago, whoever was most senior would walk into this [chairmanship]. Seniority matters, but you don’t just walk in, you have to work for it,” Sherman said. “I do expect to have to work for it but, if anything, that will make me a better chair.”

Meeks — who, when Engel leaves office, will be second in seniority among Democrats on the committee — is less closely associated with foreign policy matters than he is with financial services, where the bulk of his legislative efforts have taken place. But he touts his extensive foreign travel experience on behalf of the committee as an important qualification.

“I’ve had the responsibility to meet with national leaders in Brussels and Beijing, but I have also led delegations to Bojayá and Gaborone: regions and people that have historically been overlooked by American foreign policy,” Meeks said in a July statement announcing his candidacy. He also forged a yearslong relationship with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Meeks said he is collecting support for his candidacy from senior Democrats on the committee and will be releasing those names in September.

“What I’ve been known to do in my career is to be an individual who listens and brings people together and works in a way of harmony, no matter if you’re from the left or the right of our caucus or in the middle. And that is what it is going to take to lead this committee,” the former New York state assemblyman said. “It would be the honor of my life to chair this committee.”

Of the three candidates, Meeks is seen as having the most conciliatory approach to Republicans. In a break with committee tradition, both Sherman and Castro have said they would be willing to hold more markups on bills that don’t have unanimous support. Meeks has not said that.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member on Foreign Affairs, told CQ Roll Call that he hopes that whichever Democrat succeeds Engel continues the committee’s “great spirit of bipartisanship.”

“I’m disappointed and saddened that Eliot lost his race. We had such a great relationship, and it reflected on the committee overall. It made it the most bipartisan committee on the Hill,” McCaul said, adding that he knows Sherman, Meeks and Castro well and believes he “can get along with all three of them.”

Though Castro is the candidate with the least amount of time on the committee, he notes that he is the only one to have also served on the House Armed Services and Intelligence panels.

“I’ve had a chance during my time in Congress to be in the middle of diplomacy, defense and intelligence and see how all three of those work together the government,” Castro said.

And in his four terms, Castro has gone out of his way to develop a foreign policy specialization. When he moved over to the Intelligence Committee in 2016, he was given the choice of keeping his seat on either the Armed Services or Foreign Affairs panels. The former Texas state representative proved himself to be the rare House member to choose Foreign Affairs over Armed Services, even though Lackland Air Force Base is deeply important to his San Antonio district.

In 2019, Castro was elected by his fellow Foreign Affairs Democrats to serve as the panel’s vice chair. He also serves as the head of the Investigations subcommittee, a position he used last week to open an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for alleged Hatch Act violations over his speech to the Republican National Convention.