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Freshman Congressman Mistakes Senior Government Officials for Foreigners

Freshman Congressman Mistakes Senior Government Officials for Foreigners

In an intensely awkward congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, freshman Rep. Curt Clawson misidentified two senior U.S. government officials as representatives of the Indian government.

The two officials, Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar, are Americans who hold senior positions at the State Department and Commerce Department, respectively. Although both Biswal and Kumar were introduced as U.S. officials by the chairman of the Asia and Pacific subcommittee, Clawson repeatedly asked them questions about "your country" and "your government," in reference to the state of India.

"I’m familiar with your country; I love your country," the Florida Republican said. "Anything I can do to make the relationship with India better, I’m willing and enthusiastic about doing so."

Apparently confused by their Indian surnames and skin color, Clawson also asked if "their" government could loosen restrictions on U.S. capital investments in India.

"Just as your capital is welcome here to produce good-paying jobs in the U.S., I’d like our capital to be welcome there," he said. "I ask cooperation and commitment and priority from your government in so doing. Can I have that?"

The question prompted a lengthy pause and looks of confusion from State Department and congressional staff attending the hearing.

"I think your question is to the Indian government," Biswal said. "We certainly share your sentiment, and we certainly will advocate that on behalf of the U.S."

It’s extremely uncommon for foreign officials to testify before Congress under oath. Even so, it’s unclear if at any point Clawson realized his mistake, despite the existence of a witness list distributed to the various members detailing Biswal and Kumar’s positions. Clawson’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

During the hearing, he repeatedly touted his deep knowledge of the Indian subcontinent and his favorite Bollywood movies. None of his fellow colleagues publicly called him out on the oversight — perhaps going easy on him because he’s the new guy.

The Tea Party-backed lawmaker won a special election last month to fill the seat of Trey Radel, who resigned after being convicted for cocaine possession. Clawson pitched himself as an outsider with private sector experience and touted his role as chief executive of an aluminum wheel company.

Thursday was Clawson’s first day sitting on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. He was named to the full committee July 9. Subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) promoted Clawson’s deep international business acumen and knowledge of four languages in welcoming him. "Our newest member of this committee, Curt Clawson … speaks four languages and all kinds of other great stuff," Chabot boasted.

The gaffe comes as members of Congress seek to strengthen U.S. ties to the world’s largest democracy following the election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this spring. Lawmakers are circulating letters to have Modi address a joint session of Congress.

Following Clawson’s opening statement, Rep. Eliot Engel, the full panel’s ranking Democrat, appeared eager to point out that Biswal and Kumar work for the United States. "Thank you both for your service to our country, it’s very much appreciated," New York’s Engel said.

Update: While Clawson’s office did not respond to a request for comment, the congressman apologized in a statement to USA Today later on Friday. "I made a mistake in speaking before being fully briefed and I apologize. I’m a quick study, but in this case I shot an air ball," he said.

Video edited by Tony Papousek