House Democrats are preparing to vote next week on electing a new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a contest that poses questions on whether the caucus will reward seniority or elevate new leaders.
Three candidates are vying for the chairmanship: Reps. Brad Sherman (Calif.) and Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), the second and third most senior members; and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who has less time on the panel.
Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is leaving Congress after losing a primary to Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman. Engel himself leap-frogged Sherman in 2012 to become ranking member, showing Democrats are sometimes willing to overlook seniority.
Sherman, Meeks and Castro align on many issues. All three support Biden’s push to reassert America’s position on the world stage, prioritize pandemic preparedness and climate change and rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.
They all say they want to use the panel to conduct a post-mortem on the Trump administration’s policies and practices at the State Department.
Here’s a look at the trio of candidates.
Meeks is seen as the favorite in the race.
A member of the Congressional Black Caucus, he has the support of that large portion of the caucus and his chairmanship would send a signal of the caucus’s racial diversity – and of U.S. diversity to the world.
He’s also got enough experience in Congress and on the panel that it is not hard to imagine him being picked over Sherman, who has been on the panel longer.
Yet his competitors point out that Meeks has introduced little to no relevant legislation in the committee. Over the past four congressional terms, Meeks has introduced just a handful of resolutions, they say.
His most significant piece of legislation is also his most recent, when the House in November passed a bill that would prohibit federal funds to facilitate Russia’s participation in the Group of 7 (G7) global meeting – part of efforts to push back on President Trump’s desire for Moscow rejoin the meeting of world powers after being kicked out in 2014 for Russia’s incursion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Meeks argues he is supported by diverse coalitions within the caucus, and that he can elevate those voices.
“The Democratic party is not all one way, and we’ve got to make sure that we talk collectively together, and that’s exactly the kind of support I have and the kind of way I’m going to run the committee,” Meeks said in an interview with The Hill.
“I want on the committee, to make sure I’m empowering and utilizing the subcommittee chairs.”
While Meeks is the favorite, Castro is seen as a tough opponent.
Despite only serving four terms in Congress, Castro says he brings a unique perspective to the foreign affairs panel with his position on the House Select Committee on Intelligence and previous role on the House Armed Services Committee.
“If you drew a venn diagram of the issues that those three committees deal with, there’s incredible overlap,” Castro said in an interview with The Hill. “So I feel in a unique perspective having seen these issues from three slightly different but very important perspectives for the past eight years.”
As part of his platform, Castro has proposed to limit chair leadership to four terms. He has the backing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as endorsements from over 50 progressive groups that say he is committed to bringing a diversity of voices into foreign policy and aims to shift away from militarism with an emphasis on diplomacy. They have commended Castro’s support of a failed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have cut military spending by 10 percent.
Progressive groups also praise Castro’s highlighting of the need to include Palestinian voices when discussing issues in the Middle East.
Castro’s positions on Israel are in line with the majority of the Democratic caucus. He supports a two-state solution and a secure, Democratic homeland for the Jewish people, and opposes unilateral annexation.
But the Texas lawmakers says he wants to do more to elevate Palestinian voices as witnesses in committee hearings as an effort to compliment the Biden administration’s push to reengage with the Palestinian Authority that was severed under the Trump administration.
“I believe that there are things we can do to be helpful to regain the trust of both sides,” Castro said of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.
Castro signed onto Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Mich.) resolution affirming the right of Americans to boycott – the resolution seen as a counter to efforts by centrist and moderate Democrats to condemn the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets Israel for an economic boycott over its settlement policy in the West Bank.
Meeks and Sherman did not sign on to Omar’s resolution and it is held up in the Judiciary committee.
While Castro did not sign as a co-sponsor to a resolution condemning the BDS movement, he did vote in favor of the text when it was brought to the House floor in July 2019, and that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Sherman has the longest tenure on the committee, the most experience in leadership positions on subcommittees and has a personal connection to the State Department – his wife serves in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Sherman describes himself as the most progressive member among the three candidates, and is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but is ranked as slightly left of center on Govtrack.us, an independent, nonpartisan government transparency website.
He is the most legislatively prolific of the three members, sponsoring at least 38 bills or resolutions related to the committee within the last four sessions of Congress. Sherman saw his bill, The Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which imposes sanctions on individuals and entities threatening Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy, become law in July.
Despite all this, watchers of the race see him as the underdog.
Sherman says that he’s been running a personal campaign to shore up support for his candidacy. Sherman has come under criticism from Democratic members for a fierce 2012 primary battle where he defeated Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who was well-liked and respected in the party.
“I think that I am not the most gregarious member,” Sherman said in an interview with The Hill, “but I’ve kind of made up for it in the last two or three months, talking to members one at time.”
Of his priorities on the committee, Sherman said working with the Biden administration to reassert America’s leadership in the world is the most important and said the focus needs to be on U.S. relations with Latin America and Africa.
But he also wants to look at ways to improve legislation to further protect the State Department from political attacks he views as rampant under the Trump administration.
“The one thing where we may need legislation is to make sure that those people who did leave because they couldn’t work with Trump, can get back. That’s where we need legislation,” he said.