House Democrats: Ethical Choices and Narratives

Who WIll Be the Head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee?

| July 2020
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For the last two years, one of the foci of the U.S. engagement program has been how generational and demographic change in the United States will or will not impact how U.S. foreign policy is prioritized and what ethical benchmarks will be employed. The Democratic Party currently shelters under its “big tent” several different ethical approaches and different sets of priorities for America’s role in the world, which sometimes co-exist uneasily within the same caucus.

With Congressman Eliot Engel having lost his primary bid to be renominated for his Congressional seat in favor of Jamaal Bowman, Engel’s position as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee–and thus the de facto spokesman for the Democratic Party’s legislators on matters of international affairs–now opens up.

Bowman himself will be too junior, if he wins election in November, to assume any of Engel’s foreign policy mantle, but as Bryant Harris notes:

Three lawmakers have already shown interest in becoming the next Democratic leader of the venerable committee in a race that is quickly starting to echo Bowman’s foreign policy attacks against Engel.

Reps. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and dark horse candidate Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, are already pitching their cases to their colleagues as to why they should chair the committee should Democrat maintain control of the House in the November elections.

Each of them offers a different vision and reflects, to some extent, the divisions within the broader Democratic Party itself. They have different positions on the degree to which the U.S. should intervene around the world, the extent to which the U.S. should be engaged in other regions, and how to prioritize competing considerations such as human rights and issues of economic and environmental concern.

This race represents an interesting bellwether in the tug of war within the Democratic party between “restorationist” narratives and developing alternatives that would reconceptualize how the U.S. engages in the world, including the utility of offering security guarantees or pursuing broad-based free trade pacts.

What also bears watching is whether the Democratic caucus in the House decides to endorse a leader less committed to the “bipartisan consensus”–and whether the Republicans continue their drift towards “transactional internationalism.” We might see further erosion of any sort of centrist consensus, while, in some cases, “left” and “right” factions might reach tactical agreement against further free trade agreements or on military interventions.

So how the caucus decides this leadership question will give us more insight as to the ethical and political priorities of House Democrats when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.

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