Representative Ed Royce, outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Photo by: CSUF / CC BY-NC-SA

WASHINGTON — Representative Ed Royce absorbed the importance of the United States’ role in the world at an early age. His father served in the army during World War II and was among the U.S. forces that liberated the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, in 1945. His photos of the emaciated bodies and gas chambers are still being used to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust.

“In the six years we’ve been together, he as chairman and me as ranking member, we’ve always said that partisanship should stop at the water’s edge.”

— Rep. Eliot Engel, Democrat ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee

His father’s experience had a profound impact on Royce, who is retiring from U.S. Congress after serving as a Republican representative from California for 26 years, the last six of which he was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The pictures of that concentration camp, the images there, the lesson of what happens when the U.S. is not engaged, the lesson of what happens during a period of isolationism, as was our policy at the time, and then all hell breaks loose,” Royce said recently at a U.S. Global Leadership Coalition event.

“The lesson of the cost of that in human lives — 6 million Jews in those camps and 50 million others around this globe who lost their lives — teaches you the importance of a focus on human rights, on human freedom, on the support for the infrastructure of public diplomacy and our State Department, and our support in particular for the work that USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] does in development work.”  

“Absent this engagement, you see the consequences down the road where things spiral out of control.”

Royce channeled the personal passion for effective and robust U.S. foreign aid programs into accomplishments on numerous development and humanitarian issues throughout his career in Congress — from programs in Africa to reforming U.S. food assistance, to helping create a new U.S. development finance institution through the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act.

While some Republican politicians campaigned against U.S. foreign assistance, Royce cultivated a bipartisan coalition dedicated to advancing American interest through foreign aid programs. He saw how a strong U.S. foreign assistance program could have benefits in converting countries from aid to trade, forging soft power relationships, countering adversaries such as China, and protecting national security.

Read Devex’s Q&A with Royce: A career spent advocating for effective US foreign assistance

Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sits down with Devex to reflect on his development and humanitarian legacy and talks about what's next.

This drove Royce to remain supportive despite White House requests over the last two years to slash the foreign aid budget. Along with his Senate counterpart, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who served as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is also retiring, Royce worked to ensure that U.S. aid funds were not a casualty of the “America First” era.

“We were able to familiarize the members of the committee in their travels overseas,” Royce told Devex in an interview. “They understood the importance of the reforms which we were implementing in terms of U.S. national security and they understood the costs … They knew that the United States needed to be engaged, needed to lead.”

Africa’s influence

Royce, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992 to represent Orange County, California, chaired the Africa subcommittee on the House Foreign Affairs Committee early in his tenure. This helped shape the way he viewed the role of the U.S. in the world and his belief that it was in America’s interest to improve lives in Africa.

He supported the African Growth and Opportunities Act — originally passed into law in 2000 and modernized earlier this year — that aims to increase African exports to the U.S.

“I learned how to forge a coalition of Democrats and Republicans,” Royce said of his work to pass AGOA. “It took galvanizing bipartisan support and bicameral support to pass it, and it really had a consequential impact in its paradigm shift into trade with Africa.”

On one of his numerous trips to Africa, Royce realized, years after its passage, that AGOA’s impact was limited because so many people did not have access to electricity. This spurred his Electrify Africa bill, signed by former President Barack Obama in 2016, which aimed to promote the development of reliable and affordable energy across the continent.

“In the six years we’ve been together, he as chairman and me as ranking member, we’ve always said that partisanship should stop at the water’s edge,” Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, said at a recent award ceremony honoring Royce’s accomplishments on foreign aid effectiveness.

“Foreign assistance is always under attack, basically by people who don’t know or understand what it does. It’s not a matter of the United States giving money to other countries, it’s a matter of trying to promote values that we think are so important around the world.”

How policy wonks, politicos, and a conservative Republican remade US aid

The BUILD Act has been praised as an example of bipartisan cooperation in a fractious political era. Here's how the new U.S. development finance institution came to be.

Educating others on these values was key to his success in a frequently deadlocked Congress, said USGLC President Liz Schrayer.

“He really cared about mentoring members of his committee, particularly junior members,” Schrayer said. “The perfect example is somebody like [Florida Republican Rep.] Ted Yoho. He came to Congress, as you probably know well, as an outspoken critic of foreign assistance and called for publicly cutting foreign aid, and Chairman Royce immediately took him under his wing, traveled with him, he ended up becoming now chair of the Asia-Pacific subcommittee … and ended up being the key author of the BUILD Act.”

Food aid reform

Royce also sought to address a big problem with U.S. assistance programs. He learned from former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios that inefficiencies in U.S. emergency food aid delivery was costing lives because shipping U.S.-grown food on U.S.-flagged ships could take months to reach a humanitarian disaster.

“I engaged him and his staff maybe 10 years ago ... He was very open and he took the torch, I’ll tell you. He’s unstoppable,” Natsios said. “These are technical issues and most members of Congress don’t get involved in logistics of systems and way in which the food aid is actually delivered and how long it takes.”

The issue was complex because it touched on the work of multiple congressional committees in addition to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It also faced opposition by agriculture groups that wanted to keep rules mandating that food used in the program be grown by U.S. farmers, and shipping groups that wanted to keep rules mandating that it be sent on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Royce wanted to increase the flexibility of U.S. food aid so more of it could be obtained closer to where disaster struck, and along with Engel, proposed an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill. While the amendment ultimately failed, the vote was much closer than anticipated and created momentum for reform.

“In the end, while we didn’t get exactly what we wanted, [Royce] managed to secure through the Farm Bill conference some modest flexibility,” a committee aide said. “That also then started the conversation on the Global Food Security Act.”

That bill enacted further reform when it was signed by Obama in 2016. It was reauthorized this year and signed by President Donald Trump in October.

Although the Global Food Security Act didn’t contain all of the flexibility Royce initially argued for, the development community largely praised it as a win for increasing the impact of U.S. food aid funds.

“He really took it upon himself to push this forward. There were a number of obstacles on the way, small things: People would put holds on the bill, had trouble getting time for a vote, or there was pushback from more of his conservative members of the conservative caucus or members on the other side,” said Ryan Quinn, a senior policy adviser at Bread for the World. “He was always pushing the bill and trying to get this passed.”

A ‘workaholic policy machine’

Wins on the Global Food Security Act and other measures championed by Royce were ultimately successful because he was so committed to getting things done, former Capitol Hill staffers said.

“It’s the person who works the hardest who wins. Ed Royce has a track record of success because he works so hard.”

— Lester Munson, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer

“The person who’s still there at 11 at night, when they’re still voting and he’s there to count votes and say, ‘I need to you to vote this way’ or, ‘I need you to author this amendment,’ is going to win,” said Lester Munson, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during Royce’s tenure as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It’s the person who works the hardest who wins. Ed Royce has a track record of success because he works so hard.”

Former House Foreign Affairs Committee staffer Edward Burrier, who first worked for Royce as an intern on the Africa Subcommittee in 1999, called the chairman “a workaholic policy machine.”

“We used to joke in the office that you see a headline of ‘Congressman X gets in trouble for being out too much socially,’” said Burrier, who now serves as vice president of external affairs at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. “Our biggest problem would be that Royce would be up late reading books, reading policy papers, and he might oversleep for the meeting the next morning.”

NGOs and advocates for development and humanitarian aid also praised Royce’s open door policy.

“All the times that I went to see Chairman Royce about a critical issue, you got the sense that he was really listening to you,” said U.S. Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg. “He really took it in and he mapped it against his own pretty extensive knowledge base and then when he took something up, he really took it up. He built the relationships and had the tools to move things to action.”

Wildlife conservation

In addition to fostering bipartisanship on their respective committees, Royce and Corker worked together to pursue a bicameral foreign aid agenda across U.S. administrations.

“I couldn’t be more impressed with him and to his commitment to foreign aid and our role in the world,” Corker told Devex. “We’ve had just a tremendous partnership as it relates to working together, passing bills that affect people around the world. And hopefully others will care about the same.”

The two had similar views of U.S. foreign assistance priorities, and also worked to support issues they were each passionate about. For Corker, this was combating human trafficking, and for Royce it was a focus on conservation.

Royce saw conservation as a U.S. national security issue as well as an economic one. Criminal groups use profits from wildlife trafficking to fund illegal activities, so cutting off this revenue source can help handicap operations. Conservation could also boost Africa’s economy, because preserving the landscape and wildlife can help its ecotourism industry.

Royce, who plans to continue working on conservation in his retirement,  co-founded the International Conservation Caucus in 2003, and promoted measures to target criminal organizations benefiting from wildlife trafficking and reduce harmful logging in the Congo basin. His END Wildlife Trafficking bill became law in 2016 and increased punishment for the practice. Bills to protect elephant habitat and eliminate shark fin sales cleared the House this year but are awaiting action in the Senate before the session ends this month.

Another final piece of Royce’s legislation awaiting action in the Senate is the Women’s Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship Act. His focus on women’s empowerment stemmed in part from his belief in the link between women’s economic success and pulling countries out of poverty.

Although NGOs speak very highly of Royce and his partnership on their development agenda, they acknowledge that as a Republican, there was a limit to what he could accomplish on women’s empowerment because of political sensitivity over the issue of family planning.

“The approach he’s decided to take is to create comfort zone for Democrats and Republicans to focus on very real challenges to women to expanding economic and political participation,” a committee aide said.

Left undone

Despite bipartisan cooperation, Royce did not push through State Department authorization and foreign aid authorization bills during his tenure. The State Department hasn’t been formally authorized by Congress — a process which gives the body an input into U.S. foreign policy priorities — since 2002, although it did pass a State Department authorities bill in 2016. That bill was a pared down effort that outlined policy priorities but did not allocate funds.

“The failure, to the extent there is failure, was not passing into law a comprehensive, genuine State Department authorization bill or a foreign aid authorization bill,” Munson said. “That, I would say, is the most accurate criticism of the Royce era.”

Engel will become the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January. Royce said he trusts that under the Democrat’s leadership, the committee will continue to function in a productive, bipartisan manner that focuses on pressing development issues while leaving politics aside.

“Ed has big shoes — he’s not a tall guy — but he’s got big shoes to fit in,” Engel said.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.