New chief of House Foreign Affairs Committee outlines his top priorities

Rep. Eliot Engel speaks with reporters after a closed intelligence briefing. Photo by: REUTERS / Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON — The new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked for patience on Tuesday as he presented just a few of the many items the committee will be juggling — including foreign policy decision-making about Russia, North Korea, and China.

“If I had to boil it all down, [my chief priority is] to reassert Congress’ role in the constitution.”

— Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman, House Foreign Affairs Committee

Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, laid out his foreign policy priorities at an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. There was little mention of global health or development issues, although Yemen will be the subject of the committee's first hearing this week, and he suggested an ongoing focus to address challenges in Central America causing migration to the United States.

Responses to these issues and others may come through a statement or subcommittee hearing, even if it’s not taken up by the full committee, he said.

Russia, North Korea, and the U.S. relationship with China are a trio of issues that the committee is likely to focus on, Engel said at the event. He criticized President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, and said he was concerned by the president’s lack of reliance on his top defense and intelligence advisers as he makes decisions.

His chief priority “if I had to boil it all down, it’s to reassert Congress’ role in the constitution,” he said, adding that this would involve taking back some of the power that has transferred to the executive branch in recent years. Oversight hearings are poised to be a key part of that — with a new oversight subcommittee being created this year.

The committee’s first hearing, which will be held Wednesday, will focus on Yemen — and Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict in one of the Arab world's poorest countries. There is a lot of concern about the civilian casualties in Yemen, and while Iran is involved in the conflict, it doesn’t “warrant a sloppy war where no one cares about civilians, children, being killed,” he said.

“This is not something we can wish away, or say ‘these things happen in war,’” Engel said.

Proposed budget cuts, unfilled senior positions, and some reports of harassment or unfair treatment internally are all straining the Department of State — and morale at the agency is at an all-time low, the chairman said. Those reports will likely be the subject of an upcoming hearing. Other issues, including the budget, will be watched by the committee, he added.

Another issue that the committee will look at is root causes of migration in Central America. Engel, who was chairman of the subcommittee focused on the Western Hemisphere for years, said that he and House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, are talking about leading a Congressional delegation to Central America to investigate what can be done. While the U.S. should support local communities in the region, it should also always have its doors open to immigrants, Engel said.

Engel also discussed the crisis in Venezuela. He thinks the U.S. should work closely with other countries in the region, and doesn’t believe “anointing” opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president was a good decision, despite his belief that President Nicolás Maduro is “the worst thing right now for Venezuela.”

Engel didn’t specifically address the humanitarian situation or how it might be addressed by the committee. He did note, however, that Congress would need to play a role in ensuring that the U.S. is committed to its alliances, which have proven to be important in times of crisis.

With a full plate of priorities, some things may not be accomplished in the first month, year or even term, Engel said. When asked about the U.S. normalizing relations with Sudan, where protestors have been killed, he said that, “we will try to get involved with as many [issues] as we can. Part of our role is to highlight hotspots around the world and give it perspective.”

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    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.