Meeks Makes History as First Black Lawmaker to Chair House Foreign Affairs Committee

The New York congressman fended off a progressive challenge in an unusually public race.

Rep. Gregory Meeks speaks during a press conference in Havana, Cuba.
U.S. Democratic Congressmen Gregory Meeks and Sam Farr speak during a press conference during a Congressional visit to Havana, Cuba on May 5, 2014. Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

New York Rep. Gregory Meeks was selected as the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after a rare three-way race for the influential congressional leadership post that will play an outsized role in helping shape U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy from Capitol Hill. 

The Democratic caucus on Thursday voted to make Meeks the next chairman of the influential committee. He beat a long-shot progressive challenger, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, by a vote of 148 to 78, congressional aides told Foreign Policy. Meeks will make history as the first Black chairman of the committee in its 198-year history. California Rep. Brad Sherman, another contender, bowed out of the race earlier this week. 

The race between the centrist Meeks and Castro reflected broader rifts within the Democratic Party over its foreign-policy platform. Progressive lawmakers are pushing Biden and other centrists in the Democratic Party to shift left on foreign policy, particularly on issues like military spending, U.S. troop deployments abroad, and international trade agreements.

When he becomes chairman in January, Meeks will have an outsized role in Congress’s work on national security, foreign aid, trade, and reforming the State Department. 

In a statement issued after he was elected chair, Meeks outlined the committee’s priorities as Biden enters the White House. 

“The committee under the next Congress will preside over an historic shift in US foreign policy, and there is no shortage of work ahead of us,” he said. He said the committee would work to have the United States rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and World Health Organization, reversing departures under President Donald Trump, and “take back Congress’ constitutional authority” on war powers that “have led to ambiguous forever wars.”

He also said the committee “must take a leading role in how we rebuild the State Department.” 

The intraparty tensions seen in the race for the committee chairmanship are also playing out for the incoming White House too, as the left flank of the Democratic Party pressures Biden over his expected picks for the heads of the CIA and Department of Defense. 

In a statement, Castro outlined the common goals that he and Meeks shared for the committee despite the centrist-progressive divisions within the Democratic Party. 

“I look forward to working together with Chairman Meeks, particularly on our common goals such as promoting diversity at the U.S. State Department and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. “To my colleagues who believed in our vision and supported my bid for chair, especially those who dedicated their time to speak on my behalf, thank you. I also appreciate the passionate advocates for their strategic organizing, and I’m proud to be part of a growing progressive foreign policy movement.”

Congressional aides familiar with the matter said that they expect Castro to keep his leadership position on the committee as chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. 

On the other side of the aisle, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul was reselected by House Republicans to be their top member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul has been a vocal supporter of the Trump administration’s hawkish policies toward China. 

Rep. Eliot Engel, the outgoing chairman, helped lead Democratic investigations into Trump’s handling of U.S. foreign policy, including the impeachment investigation, inquiries into expedited arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and probes of other allegations of mismanagement at the State Department under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Both Meeks and Castro previously told Foreign Policy they would keep those investigations open after Trump leaves office in January. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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