The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. Photo by: Al Drago / Reuters

The roster is finally set as a new cadre of U.S. congressional leaders has taken the helm of the committees with the greatest role in determining policy and providing funding to the United States’ development priorities.

In the Senate, some key leaders merely switched from ranking members to chairs of their respective committees. But in the House of Representatives, election losses and retirements have resulted in a new set of leaders.

The leadership changes across the board might not have a huge impact on development issues, many of which are traditionally bipartisan, said Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.

While some development advocates hope the new leadership could lead to a more robust agenda, many caution that Congress and the Biden administration are contending with a number of domestic challenges — including, of course, COVID-19. So expectations should be kept realistic, they told Devex. Even when former President Barack Obama was elected with even bigger Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress, hopes of big action on these issues didn’t come to fruition, they said.

Some of the policy priorities of the new leaders aren’t yet clear. So far, it seems Africa may be more of a priority in the House than before, global health security may be taken on in the Senate, and a lack of diversity in U.S. foreign policy and foreign aid may be examined by both.

Devex spoke to a number of development experts and advocates about the new leadership. Here’s a look at who’s in charge:

Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

Chairman: Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey

Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Photo by: U.S. Senate

What to know: Menendez is not new to the job — he previously served as chairman of the committee between 2013-2015. Menendez has expressed interest in addressing climate issues, China, and trying to pass a State Department authorization bill. He could also look to pass legislation on global health security — he sponsored a related bill last year. Menendez and his staff have a robust agenda. And they have indicated they want to reach across the aisle and share information in ways that didn’t happen when Democrats were in the minority, one development advocate said, requesting anonymity to speak freely.

Menendez and ranking member Sen. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, are known to have a strained relationship. So a big question will be how the committee, traditionally known for bipartisan cooperation, can work together.

Senate Committee on Appropriations

Chairman: Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Photo by: Senate Judiciary Committee

What to know: Leahy has served as the ranking member of the full committee, and has led the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee as chair or ranking member since 1989. His strong interest in foreign policy and development issues means he should be a champion for them as head of the committee, experts said. While Leahy will have to work hard to “keep everyone happy,” it “makes a difference to have a champion like Leahy with lots of experience and knowledge,” O’Keefe said. “When things come to the full committee he will understand the case being made” and is more likely to support them.

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs

Chairman: Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware

Sen. Chris Coons, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. Photo by: U.S. Senate

What to know: Coons was instrumental in passing the BUILD Act, which authorized the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, and has been a consistent champion of foreign aid and development issues, advocates said. His interest dates back to his college days, when he wrote his senior thesis about U.S. foreign aid in Africa after spending a semester studying at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

Coons said he is committed to working with Republicans and that his top priorities will be combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting safe and equitable vaccine distribution, and supporting the “Biden administration’s efforts to revitalize the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other critical international agencies so we may build a foreign policy rooted in the values of the American people.” Coons was on the shortlist to be Biden’s Secretary of State and is a close friend and adviser to the president, making him a key player in this Congress.

House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Chairman: Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York

Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Photo by: Kristie Boy /  Official House Photographer

What to know: Meeks has historically been active on trade issues, has a strong interest in Europe, and has served on the Financial Services committee. But development advocates aren’t sure how much he’ll focus on aid. They say they’re hopeful the foreign affairs committee will be more active, take on a broader range of issues, and expand from its Middle East focus under his predecessor. Meeks has already signaled that Africa will be a priority under his leadership, using his first public event since taking the role to call for a “reset” of U.S.-Africa policy.

The committee will also have a new constellation of subcommittees, with several of them being reorganized, some taken away and others added:

In Brief: House foreign affairs leader on US-Africa policy priorities

Rep. Gregory Meeks used his first public event since becoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to outline what he says will be a key focus: U.S.-Africa policy.

• The Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights will be chaired by Rep. Karen Bass of California.
• The Subcommittee on International Development, International Organizations and Global Corporate Social Impact will be chaired by Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas.
• The Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation will be chaired by Rep. Ami Bera of California.
• The Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber will be chaired by Rep. William Keating of Massachusetts.
• The Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism will be chaired by Rep. Ted Deutch, of Florida.
• The Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, Migration, and International Economic Policy will be chaired by Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey.

House Committee on Appropriations

Chairwoman: Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations. Photo by: U.S. House of Representatives

What to know: DeLauro has been a more domestically focused congresswoman, but she has a good understanding of international issues, O’Keefe said. “She’s an internationalist and supporter of the development enterprise.” DeLauro replaces former Rep. Nita Lowey, who served as chair of the full committee and the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee before retiring from Congress last year and was known as a strong champion for foreign aid funding and issues. The committee and DeLauro will likely face pressure on the domestic side to spend more, and dynamics will change. Still, the committee is likely to continue to be supportive of the state and foreign operations budget, at least in the short term, advocates said. What remains to be seen is how Democrats will prioritize international assistance and funding, O’Keefe said.

House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs

Chairwoman: Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California

Rep. Barbara Lee, chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. Photo by: U.S. Congress

What to know:  Lee was described as a “forceful champion” who has worked on development issues for a long time and is likely to continue to focus on Africa. Foreign aid will be in “good hands” with her at the helm of the committee, development advocates told Devex. Lee helped establish the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and has been  part of some of the more important foreign assistance legislative achievements of the last 20 years.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter 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.