Shadow Government

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Previewing the potential House Republican foreign-policy heavyweights

Absent a surprise showing of "Dewey Defeats Truman" proportions by Democrats, Republicans are very likely to take control of the House of Representatives as a result of Tuesday’s midterm elections. A takeover of the Senate is less likely but also possible. I have speculated previously on what a GOP Congress might mean for President Barack ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

Absent a surprise showing of "Dewey Defeats Truman" proportions by Democrats, Republicans are very likely to take control of the House of Representatives as a result of Tuesday's midterm elections. A takeover of the Senate is less likely but also possible. I have speculated previously on what a GOP Congress might mean for President Barack Obama's national security policy (CliffsNotes version: The White House should be happy, because a Republican House will be more supportive of the Afghan war and would advocate a tougher posture towards Iran).

But what of the people who will actually comprise the new House majority? Foreign-policy issues have not played any significant role in this election (other than the Obama White House's ham-handed and scurrilous accusations of "foreign money" supporting Republican campaigns), in which jobs, the economy, and the deficit are voters' main concerns. Most new Representatives will enter office with little foreign policy experience -- with the notable exception of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans running for Congress. These vets -- who will join several other Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom vets already serving in the House -- won't necessarily take the same positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and national security. However, they will influence Congressional policy debates in at least two ways: bringing with them the credibility and insight gained from their firsthand experiences in theater, and through the informal networks they maintain with their military colleagues who are still deployed who can pass along back-channel assessments of front-line conditions.

More prominent in the shaping of congressional policy are the committee chairs. Committees are where the nuts and bolts of congressional business get done, such as hearings, and developing and moving legislation. And the chairs of each committee have considerable authority over its operations, including all-important hiring of staff, holding oversight hearings, shaping the content of bills, and deciding when and how to move legislation forward. Committee chairs are mostly determined by seniority, but the GOP Caucus and leadership play a key role and must approve all new chairs. So while no particular chair appointment is certain, here's a look at the likely new GOP chairs of key foreign policy related House committees:

Absent a surprise showing of "Dewey Defeats Truman" proportions by Democrats, Republicans are very likely to take control of the House of Representatives as a result of Tuesday’s midterm elections. A takeover of the Senate is less likely but also possible. I have speculated previously on what a GOP Congress might mean for President Barack Obama’s national security policy (CliffsNotes version: The White House should be happy, because a Republican House will be more supportive of the Afghan war and would advocate a tougher posture towards Iran).

But what of the people who will actually comprise the new House majority? Foreign-policy issues have not played any significant role in this election (other than the Obama White House’s ham-handed and scurrilous accusations of "foreign money" supporting Republican campaigns), in which jobs, the economy, and the deficit are voters’ main concerns. Most new Representatives will enter office with little foreign policy experience — with the notable exception of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans running for Congress. These vets — who will join several other Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom vets already serving in the House — won’t necessarily take the same positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and national security. However, they will influence Congressional policy debates in at least two ways: bringing with them the credibility and insight gained from their firsthand experiences in theater, and through the informal networks they maintain with their military colleagues who are still deployed who can pass along back-channel assessments of front-line conditions.

More prominent in the shaping of congressional policy are the committee chairs. Committees are where the nuts and bolts of congressional business get done, such as hearings, and developing and moving legislation. And the chairs of each committee have considerable authority over its operations, including all-important hiring of staff, holding oversight hearings, shaping the content of bills, and deciding when and how to move legislation forward. Committee chairs are mostly determined by seniority, but the GOP Caucus and leadership play a key role and must approve all new chairs. So while no particular chair appointment is certain, here’s a look at the likely new GOP chairs of key foreign policy related House committees:

  • Foreign Affairs: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida). A Cuban-American, Ros-Lehtinen has long been a vocal critic of the Castro regime, and will be in a strong position to scrutinize and resist any potential softening by the Obama administration on Cuba. But Cuba is by no means her only issue. Ros-Lehtinen is a savvy, experienced legislator who would likely focus on ways to strengthen anti-WMD proliferation policies, increase pressure on rogue regimes such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan, and elevate democracy promotion efforts. She is also a strong supporter of Israel.
  • Appropriations Subcommittee on State-Foreign Relations: Kay Granger (Texas). As obscure as this subcommittee may be outside the Beltway, it is essential for keeping the lights on at the State Department and U.S. embassies around the world, not to mention funding America’s $52 billion foreign assistance budget in the "150 account." Granger, an internationalist who is co-chair of the House Anti-Terrorism Caucus and also serves on the board of the International Republican Institute, will likely maintain a robust commitment to foreign assistance, including support for democracy and human rights promotion, even during a time of fiscal austerity. She won’t be cutting blank checks, however, evidenced by her skepticism towards the Karzai government’s corruption and concerns about insufficient oversight of civilian assistance funds for Afghanistan.
  • Armed Services: Howard "Buck" McKeon (California). McKeon is a vocal opponent of the "declinist" foreign-policy school, and has been critical of what he sees as the White House’s half-hearted support for victory in Afghanistan. With expertise in defense budgeting and procurement processes, he is a strong supporter of an increased Pentagon budget and long-term investments in weapons research. In 2011, he will also bring considerable scrutiny to the administration’s stated plans to begin a troop drawdown from Afghanistan in July.
  • Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: Elton Gallegly (California). On homeland security issues, Gallegly has focused more on illegal immigration than on intelligence; retiring ranking member (and former chair) Pete Hoekstra has been the most visible House Republican on intelligence issues. Nevertheless, Gallegly has shared most of Hoekstra’s critiques of many of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies, particularly its (now dormant) plans to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, occasional Mirandizing of terrorism suspects, and curtailing the use of coercive interrogation techniques. As chair, Gallegly would subject the administration to much more scrutiny than it has experienced under current chairman Silvestre Reyes (Texas).
  • Ways and Means: Dave Camp (Michigan). Ways and Means gets the most notoriety attention for its role as the committee in charge of writing tax law, but its jurisdiction over international trade policy makes it a key player on foreign policy as well. Unlike the current protectionist Chair Sander Levin (D-MI), Camp is a committed free trader. Along with likely Trade Subcommittee Chair Kevin Brady (Texas), Camp can be expected to make a priority of ratifying the FTAs with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, which have heretofore been stalled — primarily due to opposition from the Democrats’ labor union base.

If the GOP takes control of even one house of Congress, the Obama White House will face serious obstacles to its domestic agenda, and will probably follow the tried-and-true pattern of focusing more on foreign policy for the remaining two years of its term. Starting on November 3, the administration’s national security team would do well to reach out and get to know the members listed above.

*This post has been corrected.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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