WASHINGTON — After 26 years in U.S. Congress and six years as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ed Royce is retiring.
The Republican from California was known in the development and humanitarian community as a tireless advocate for effective United States foreign assistance programs. His departure, along with that of his counterpart Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, has led NGOs to honor their work advancing a robust development agenda while looking out for champions for the same issues in the next Congress.
“I believed that if we could speak with one voice on U.S. foreign policy, we could be far more effective in changing policies.”— Rep. Ed Royce, outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Royce has received awards from InterAction, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition in recent ceremonies, at which many of his colleagues delivered tributes to his dedication to bipartisanship and getting bills passed.
As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce saw the benefits a strong U.S. foreign assistance program could have in converting countries from trade to aid, forging soft power relationships, countering adversaries such as China, and protecting national security.
The retiring congressman recently spoke with Devex to reflect on his legacy on development and humanitarian policies. He spoke about why he made cultivating bipartisan support for a strong U.S. role in the world a hallmark of his time as House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, and how his service on the Africa subcommittee early in his career influenced his foreign aid agenda.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Most members of Congress who come to Washington don’t have a background in development. Why did this issue spark your interest?
I knew [former USAID administrator] Andrew Natsios and he explained how he watched people die waiting for U.S. food to arrive from the United States. I had a similar opportunity, unfortunately, in Darfur, Sudan, to watch consequences of our inefficiency, and the cost of it in human terms in getting aid to people during that famine.
Enacting the Global Food Security Act, which authorized the International Disaster Assistance account for the first time in 30 years and established the Emergency Food Security Program, reformed that process and allows us to get that aid in to people who are starving in real time.
I had the same opportunity in the Philippines to see the consequences of reforms which we’ve pushed through here after the typhoon. Instead of waiting six weeks for food, people were able to obtain it immediately. That was a large part of what drove my interest, what I saw firsthand in my travels across Africa and Asia.
How did your time as chair of the Africa subcommittee shape your priorities when you were chair of the full committee?
One of the great opportunities that I saw in Africa was steps that we could take with the African Growth and Opportunity Act to create an incentive for good governance and pro-growth policies in sub-Saharan Africa. I learned how to forge a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. That bill was marked up in my Africa subcommittee and the Ways and Means Committee. And it took galvanizing bipartisan support and bicameral support to pass it.
It really had a consequential impact in its paradigm shift into trade with Africa. We basically tripled trade with the continent and I think that the ability to advance AGOA and [Millennium Challenge Act] Modernization Act into law, which we did earlier this year, managed to build on the original AGOA.
It really allows us to continue to build on that foundation, but at the same time in our work on AGOA, we noticed that competing with the U.S. vision for empowering Africans was the Chinese model.
China is aggressively investing in Africa. But what they’re doing is discouraging the rule of law, discouraging civil society, sharing with African leaders that they should not have independent courts but that everything should be run top down and all the decisions [be] made by one individual.
Our goal is to empower civil society across the continent.
You helped usher through the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development, or BUILD, Act. How does that bill help advance this goal?
What the BUILD Act does is create a $60 billion U.S. international global development finance corporation which will mobilize private capital in support of sustainable, broad-based economic growth. So what you have is an alternative to the state-directed investments by authoritarian governments like China.
This then really is a way to assist in not just democracy building but in strengthening the rule of law in Africa and opportunities for Africans.
The BUILD Act is one example of a bipartisan initiative you supported on the committee. Why was this mentality important to you?
I believed that if we could speak with one voice on U.S. foreign policy, we could be far more effective in changing policies. I believe I was effective early on in convincing the members of the committee that there was a great advantage to having U.S. leverage around the world if we were cooperating, if we were speaking with one voice.
As a consequence of some of the victories we had early on with that approach, we built the type of confidence in the members of the committee that if they would compromise, we could establish accomplishments like the one we did with the DELTA Act [Defending Economic Livelihoods and Threatened Animals], and the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, and our bill to abolish the ivory trade by protecting elephants and rhinos. Not only for posterity but in the interest of U.S. national security.
Ultimately, we could convince everyone that transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups are engaged in profiting from poaching and trafficking and that the way to end this, the way to stop this trafficking in guns, and drugs, and people, was to eliminate the trade in ivory.
I think it was the successes, the accomplishments that we built in this area that began to convince the members of the committee to all cooperate.
How did you and members of your committee resist foreign aid budget cuts favored by President Donald Trump’s administration?
I think we were able to familiarize the members of the committee in their travels overseas. I made certain they always traveled together, Republicans and Democrats. The hearings that we held on these issues, they understood the importance of the reforms which we were implementing in terms of U.S. national security and they understood the human costs — whether it was traveling to Darfur, Sudan, or across central Asia.
They knew that the United States needed to be engaged, needed to lead. And if we did not have a robust presence and engagement from the State Department, if we were not working on issues like women’s empowerment, and wildlife tracking, and the BUILD Act, that the United States interest and influence was going to be undermined by both authoritarian regimes, like China, and by the interests of radical jihadist organizations which were expanding their influence in the Middle East and Africa and beyond.
It was this argument that galvanized the support of the members of the committee behind the policies that I advocated for robust engagement around the world.
Were there any areas in which you would have liked to see further action?
For many years, we looked at market-based approaches to promote access to electricity across sub-Saharan Africa. Ultimately, we were able to pass Electrify Africa. As we looked toward the future, we’ve now seen more than 57 million people in sub-Saharan Africa gain access to electricity that did not have that access prior to enactment of the law in 2014.
“We have a long way to go with respect to the digital divide, and I think that is going to continue to be an issue in which the United States needs to engage across the developing world.”—
We have a long way to go with respect to the digital divide, and I think that is going to continue to be an issue in which the United States needs to engage across the developing world.
Are you confident that your legacy of bipartisanship on the committee will continue?
In terms of membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee, for the last six years, we’ve operated on a bipartisan basis.
More on U.S. foreign policy:
I believe that the information we’ve shared with members, the younger members of the committee, that the knowledge that they have from the hearings and from their firsthand [experience from] trips across the developing world of the very real consequences of both U.S. leadership and what it looks like when we’re not engaged will leave them with a continued focus on working together to maintain the gains that we’ve made.
After your retirement, do you plan to continue engaging on these issues?
Yes, I do. I’m going to continue to donate my time to the effort of the Conservation Caucus which I founded many years ago with Sen. Tom Udall.
I think it’s critically important now that we have found that it’s a model that’s worked in Latin America and in Africa as well, setting up caucuses within the parliaments of these countries and those caucuses have focused especially on combating trafficking and on building support for the types of reforms that will protect these magnificent species in the future.