The Next Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee must build on Corker’s success

By Daniel DePetris

In a late-evening announcement to his constituents, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) released a statement detailing his decision to not seek a third term next year. It is tempting to dismiss Corker’s retirement as an inconsequential end to a politician's career, part of the revolving door that Washington, D.C., life is known for. That, however, would be a significant mistake—not only because Corker is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), but also because the junior senator from Tennessee has managed to slowly but surely enhance the power, role, and influence of the U.S. Congress over America’s foreign and national security policies. For a legislative branch all too accustomed to avoiding the field for the safety of the sidelines, this is quite a big leap for a single legislator to pull off.

Like many of his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, Corker can best be described as a hawkish internationalist. Throughout his tenure as the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Corker used the stature of his position to increase oversight of the Obama and Trump administrations on everything from how they chose to prosecute the war against the Islamic State, to its negotiating strategy with the Russians.

At times, Corker is a severe critic of U.S. foreign policy and the State Department’s capacity to execute it.  Throughout Obama’s second term, he consistently called for the U.S. to be much more aggressive in Ukraine and Syria. Whereas President Obama recognized sending lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military would escalate Kiev’s conflict with the separatists and make the war more difficult to resolve, Corker used his gavel to drill home his belief that the U.S. needed to raise the cost on Moscow to convince it to de-escalate.

On Syria, he was one of the loudest voices on Capitol Hill to arm the moderate opposition with lethal supplies—so much so that he helped move a bill through the Foreign Relations Committee that would have authorized U.S. arms exports to the rebels.

One can and should certainly disagree with these positions. Delivering weapons and ammunition to both Ukraine and Syria, for example, would further deteriorate those conflicts and make any diplomatic discussions between the warring parties more difficult. The fact that Corker’s Syria assistance bill would have allowed the president to deliver anti-aircraft missiles to rebel groups who tactically cooperated with extremists on the battlefield was a serious error in judgment and a perfect example of Washington’s propensity to escalate U.S. involvement in a conflict without first evaluating all of the costs that could result from deeper intervention. Corker’s position on Russia, which amounts to a policy of punishing Moscow economically even when it has failed to change its behavior in Ukraine, Syria, and the Baltics, makes pragmatic and creative diplomacy with Russian officials less likely.

What Corker should be given credit for, however, is reasserting the Senate as an institution that is more serious and deliberative on matters of national security than it has been in the past—this is a welcome and necessary return to the way our founders envisioned Congress.

Thanks in part to his perseverance, the Foreign Relations Committee has been transforming back into the important, legendary, and powerful committee that it was once. Corker has successfully pulled this off by focusing on the very basics of regular order, particularly the committee’s duty to debate, mark-up, and pass steps toward a State Department authorization bill. 

While actually doing the bare minimum may strike a lot of people as an underachievement, it is difficult to describe just how vital an authorization bill is for the State Department.  The legislation sets foreign policy priorities for the fiscal year; establishes programs and reporting requirements that America’s diplomatic leadership has to meet; and authorizes taxpayer money for specific initiatives that Congress views as critical to the national interest.  In stark contrast to the annual Defense Authorization Act that is rightly considered must-pass legislation and has been passed by Congress for over fifty straight years, Foggy Bottom’s authorization bill was stuck in the legislative doldrums before Corker took over the chairman’s gavel. While the full Senate’s record on this important piece of legislation has been less than consistent, the Foreign Relations Committee has sent reform legislation to the Senate floor every year that Corker has presided.

The senator also grasped the disturbing sense of complacency among members of Congress. The legislative branch, an independent and co-equal branch of government that America’s founders deliberately established as a check on an expansionary executive, too often took the form of a rubber-stamp or a disinterested do-nothing body when it came to policy overseas. Perversely, the president has been the main actor on the foreign policy stage, authorizing special operations raids or bombing missions in new countries without even a general discussion in the halls of Congress about the efficacy those decisions.

Economic sanctions were implemented and removed when the president wanted them to be removed, as if America’s elected representatives on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue were mere witnesses who only needed to be informed after the fact. Corker, with help from his colleagues on the committee, attempted to turn the tables by codifying a congressional role in the sanctions process. Now, if the president wants to remove sanctions against Moscow, he needs to explain the policy fully to Congress and receive its blessing before waiving or terminating them. Indeed, Congress would not have had a role at all on the Iran nuclear agreement if it were not for a bill that Corker co-authored mandating a congressional review and vote on the agreement.

Whoever the committee’s next chairman is, he or she must build on this record.

The Foreign Relations Committee has an integral role to play in American foreign policy, and the man or woman holding the gavel should not be afraid to wield the oversight power that delegates of the Constitutional Convention granted the Congress over two and half centuries ago.

Policies, and the implementation of those policies, must receive a public airing; administration officials must defend their performance in full view of the American public; and military strikes must be evaluated and voted upon before interventions take place. The next chairman must insist that the legislative branch is not only consulted and informed, but also asserts its prerogatives and actually votes on the wars our soldiers fight.

Sen. Corker reinvigorated this process, but much work is left to be done. His successor must continue it and build on all of the work the committee has made over the previous three years. Our country must follow the Constitution—good government depends on it.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on October 5, 2017. Read more HERE