Rep. Ed Royce’s Failure to Hold Trump Accountable Is a Dereliction of Duty
The chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee should use his last year in office to reverse the unprincipled silence and moral weakness of Republicans in Congress.
Rep. Ed Royce, the California Republican who is the powerful chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced on Monday that he would not seek re-election this year. Before he goes, will he change course and hold the administration to account for its incompetent foreign policy?
Royce has a reputation for being a canny legislator and operator in Washington. Like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Royce is now free from personal electoral considerations and has an opportunity in the year ahead to do what he has failed to do so far: hold the Trump administration accountable for its harebrained foreign policy and seek to curb the damage being done at the State Department.
When I served as deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Barack Obama administration, Royce and his staff repeatedly called on me to explain or defend some aspect of our human rights policy. I welcomed their interest. Even though I always got a bit nervous when I went to Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress and their staffers, or to testify at hearings, I always felt grateful during the drive back to Foggy Bottom. I was experiencing something that was central to the legitimacy and strength of the American system — the legislative branch was holding the executive branch to account. As an advocate for democratic values, I couldn’t not embrace that.
While the disgrace and incompetence of President Donald Trump and his White House seems limitless, and while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s much-heralded management skills have proven to be a hoax, in some ways the most stunning disappointment of the last year is the almost universal failure of Republicans in the House and Senate to use their considerable power to hold the administration accountable and to mitigate the harm being done. When we look back at the Trump era, the collective spinelessness of those on Capitol Hill will go down as one of the principal moral travesties that endangered the country. Trump is irredeemable. But there are some smart, ethical, sane people who are in positions of power in the Congress — and they are acting not as leaders, but as accessories to the catastrophe that is the Trump administration. They know Trump is unfit, but they say nothing. They know what Tillerson is doing to the State Department will weaken American diplomacy for a generation, but they stay silent. These people know the impact of not doing anything. And their weakness, their complete lack of courage, their feeble commitment to principle, their willingness to offer empty rationalizations, is a more significant moral failure than the chaotic incompetence perpetrated by the addled mind in the Oval Office.
I’ve written before here about how Corker could use his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to help mitigate some of the damage being done to the State Department. Royce, who has been the chair of House Foreign Affairs Committee since 2013, also has the power to hold the administration to account. But it would require a change of course for Royce, because so far, he’s done a lousy job of scrutinizing and pushing back on the administration’s numerous follies.
A bit of data: From Nov. 1 of last year through Jan. 10, 2018, Royce’s committee has held or scheduled 18 committee or subcommittee hearings on topics related to U.S. national security and foreign policy. In only three of them has the committee had a witness from the administration — that is to say, a member of the executive branch responsible for design or implementation of the relevant policy. Now, not every hearing needs to have an administration witness — part of the value of hearings is exposing members of Congress to the testimony of independent experts. But many hearings, especially those pertaining to crucial areas of foreign policy where Congressional oversight is warranted, do merit a presentation by the executive branch. For example, it seems strange that while committee held full committee or subcommittee hearings on “The Future of NAFTA,” “The Latest Developments in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon,” “U.S. Policy Toward Tibet,” and “Russia: Counterterrorism partner or fanning the flames?” — there was not a single administration witness at any of them. (There were some very good Obama administration alums as witnesses at several hearings.)
For comparison’s sake, during the same period of 2015 to 2016, toward the end of the Obama administration, Royce’s committee held 20 hearings and had administration witnesses at eight of them. So, 40 percent of the hearings included administration witnesses who had to defend the executive branch’s policies two years ago, while less than 17 percent of them have in the last couple months. Why was Royce nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to call on the executive branch two years ago than he is today?
It can’t be that things have just been quiet. Here’s a quick reminder of just a few of the foreign-affairs-related bombshells of the last couple months:
- In November 2017, we learned that in addition to his decimation of the State Department’s professional diplomatic corps, Tillerson was inexplicably refusing key security briefings.
- In December 2017, in a move without a strategy, Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — throwing a grenade on the peace process, such as it is, and dealing a setback to those who hope for a peaceful Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, responded to the predictable backlash at the U.N. by stoking the fire and modeling her diplomatic approach on the movie Mean Girls: hosting a party and not inviting the ambassadors she was mad at.
- The president released a new National Security Strategy in December 2017 that abandoned the centrality of a rules-based order and democratic values to U.S. national security policy — an approach that has been well established since World War II in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
- To usher in 2018, Trump mean-tweeted at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, childishly raising the prospect of nuclear war and further eroding a taboo on nuclear threats that has allowed a post-Cold War generation to come of age without the fear of nuclear annihilation.
- The president used Twitter to go after Pakistan, undermining diplomatic efforts with a particularly difficult partner and making the issues that he purports to be concerned about more difficult to address.
A chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee could call a hearing on each of the above issues (and several others — like the most violent year since 2014 in Russia’s war against Ukraine, or Russia’s continuing attempts to dictate outcomes in Syria, including its late-November meeting with Turkey and Iran), but the fact that Royce’s committee and its Republican-chaired subcommittees haven’t called the administration to testify on any of them is a surprising abdication. Royce put out an anodyne statement welcoming the new National Security Strategy, and though the statement identified human rights as a key element of U.S. foreign policy, he failed to note that the president’s strategy does not.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is supposed to play an oversight role, to serve as a check on the administration’s foreign policy and the work of its foreign affairs agencies. Instead it is, through its negligent silence, enabling Trump’s dangerously incompetent approach to foreign affairs and endangering the interests and security of U.S. citizens.
So why is that? Despite the fact that he votes with Trump more than 96 percent of the time, Royce works hard to try to project himself as a moderate. And he doesn’t have a reputation for being wacky or under the thumb of the Russians, unlike his fellow California Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
Why isn’t he serving as a responsible voice in Congress, demanding that the administration explain how its moves in the Middle East fit within a broader strategy? Why isn’t he asking Tillerson to testify about how he plans to keep U.S. diplomats and their families safe if he refuses security briefings? Why is he not insisting that the administration explain how it is leveraging its deep investment in the relationship with Saudi Arabia to generate positive outcomes in the region? Trump traveled recently to China: Why is the administration not asked to explain why he failed to forcefully raise human rights, including in Tibet, with Chinese President Xi Jinping? And why — when the administration is deeply entangled in possibly criminal relations with Russia — do Royce and his fellow Republicans not wish to ensure that the Trump administration understands clearly that Russia is a destructive, untrustworthy actor?
Whatever the reason for his relative silence, Royce’s failure to use his powerful committee chairmanship to hold the administration accountable is a dereliction of duty that makes him an enabler of a reckless foreign policy.
Last week, Trump announced his intention to nominate Royce’s wife, Marie, to a plum job as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs — a top job in one of the agencies for which Royce’s committee is supposed to provide oversight. Perhaps Royce has been going easy on the Trump administration because he didn’t want to incur the president’s famous wrath and jeopardize his wife’s appointment. But now that she’s been nominated, and now that Royce has announced his retirement, he has one year to use his newfound freedom to do the job that his constituents, and all Americans, count on him to do: withhold legislative authorization to stop bad policies, force the secretary of state and other officials to testify so that they have to articulate and defend strategies for any State Department reform or new approaches to global challenges, speak out loudly in support of an American foreign policy grounded in universal values, and call out the Trump administration’s backward, 19th-century worldview as a detriment to U.S. prosperity and security.
This is your moment, Royce. Be purposeful, principled, and noisy on your way out. Your constituents and your conscience will thank you for it.