Progressives Look to Wield Power in a New Place: The Foreign Affairs Committee

Joaquin Castro, in a long-shot bid for chair, says he wants to hold the Trump administration accountable.

Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), and others participate in an event with DACA(Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), TPS (Temporary Protected Status), and DED(Deferred Enforced Departure) recipients on Capitol Hill March 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and others participate in an event with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2019. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

On November 2, anticipating President Donald Trump’s impending electoral demise, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, outlined a plan to turn the page on the administration’s treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers. Castro called on Congress to create a special body — either a human rights commission or a select committee — that would investigate family separations under Trump and refer any violations of the law to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution.


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Castro has also called for bringing the war in Afghanistan to an end, cutting off U.S. support for the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen, and having Congress end blank-check authorizations for wars in the Middle East — which would force Congress to debate and define the scope of the war on terror.

Come next Congress, Castro may have a real power to make good on those ideas.

But first, he has to win his bid to become chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, beating two senior members in an uphill, secret-ballot election. If Republicans keep control of the Senate, whoever is elected chair in the Democratic-controlled House could end up becoming one of the most important congressional figures in shaping a post-Trump foreign policy.

The position is only open because insurgent Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal, ousted committee chair Rep. Eliot Engel in a New York primary. Though Castro isn’t particularly known as a leader in the progressive foreign policy space, among the contenders, he is by far the most sympathetic to the broader left, explaining why he has rounded up near-unanimous support among the country’s progressive foreign policy organizations.

But despite that support, it’s unclear how many progressive votes Castro may actually get. Often, member-to-member races can be less ideological and have more to do with personal relationships. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., for example, a progressive voice on foreign policy who sponsored a number of congressional efforts to stop U.S. support to Saudi Arabia, indicated in September that he would support New York Democrat Gregory Meeks. (In a statement, Khanna told The Intercept that Meeks was helpful in building support for the Yemen resolution and that he “shares an understanding about the harm a colonizers model of the world has caused in Asia and Africa.”)

Representative Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a news conference outside a U.S. Postal Service post office in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is calling the House back to vote on legislation to halt post office cutbacks and give the agency $25 billion in additional funding, appealed to House members to participate in a day of action today by appearing at a post office in their districts. Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a news conference outside a U.S. Postal Service post office in Queens, N.Y., on Aug. 18, 2020.

Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Over the course of two phone interviews from his home in San Antonio, one last month and another last week, Castro laid out his vision of a Foreign Affairs Committee that he said would be more diverse and tackle a wider range of issues, and wouldn’t let up on investigating Trump

“It’s true that the other side is going to make big political headlines about how you’re ‘coming after’ opponents. But are we supposed to not hold people accountable folks for what were intentional acts?” Castro said in October. “I think there is a greater risk to doing nothing and letting everybody skate. That’s the greatest risk.”

Castro, alongside his twin brother and former presidential candidate Julián Castro, are perhaps best known as vocal critics of the Trump administration’s immigration policy. (During his brother’s presidential campaign, Joaquin grew a beard to help people tell them apart, with mixed success.) But during his seven years in Congress, Joaquin Castro has quietly built a reputation for tough oversight, particularly in his current role as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who has endorsed Castro in the race, said that Castro developed a reputation as a hands-on leader in the CHC and that he is serious about accountability for immigration abuses.

“I’ve watched him run the caucus through some very, very difficult years — the last two years under Trump,” Grijalva said. “He experienced it. We visited the private prisons, the for-profit prisons, visited the border, saw the separation firsthand. He saw the Border Patrol and ICE suddenly become political arms of the Trump administration. … You can’t just go back to the way it was there. There has to be reforms and guardrails going forward.”

Castro’s stance on post-election investigations could put him at odds with a Biden administration. Last week NBC reported that the Biden administration is wary of post-inauguration Trump investigations, fearing they may appear hyperpartisan and undermine national unity. That would be in line with the Obama White House’s messaging on Bush-era torture: The U.S. should “look forward, not back.”

In his work with the committee, where he chairs the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, Castro has been clear that he thinks unfinished investigations due to Trump’s stonewalling should be completed after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated.

A video of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking during the Republican National Convention plays from the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A video of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking from Jerusalem plays in the Rose Garden of the White House, during the Republican National Convention on Aug. 25, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

In August, for example, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke remotely at the Republican National Convention while on official diplomatic travel in Jerusalem — an act that is both unprecedented and likely illegal — Castro launched an investigation into how State Department resources may have gone to supporting Pompeo’s political activity.

Later, when State Department officials testified in front of the committee in September, Castro warned them not to stonewall his document requests. “If we don’t wrap this investigation up … I am going to ask this committee to make sure that those investigations continue past November and past January.”

“There has historically been this idea that once an administration is done, you try to move forward and you don’t want to look like you’re simply trying to go after or prosecute political opponents,” Castro said last week. “We have to do what is necessary to make sure that a future administration is not inspired by the Trump administration to conduct some of the same activities as before, like separating kids from their parents, knowing that they have no way of tracking that and reuniting them.”

This summer, after it became clear that committee chair Eliot Engel lost his primary election, Castro announced his bid, calling for a “new generation of foreign policy leadership.” But in a system usually dominated by seniority, Castro, having only come to Congress in 2013, is at a severe disadvantage.

Castro is up against California Democrat Brad Sherman and Meeks, both of whom were elected to Congress more than a decade before Castro. Both are relatively more hawkish on Iran and U.S. support for Israel. Sherman opposed the Obama administration’s Iran deal; Meeks, although he was a target for progressives in a June primary election in Queens, has the backing of many in the powerful Congressional Black Caucus and is seen as a heavy favorite.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 08:  Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) (R) talks to reporters as he leaves a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol February 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. Support from Democrats for a federal budget deal struck by leaders in the Senate will be key in getting the legislation through the House and prevent a government shutdown.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., right, talks to reporters as he leaves a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 8, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a statement, Sherman said he was running for the position because he thought he was the most qualified and would do the best job. “That said, I know Joaquin is capable, knowledgeable and a hard-working member of the Foreign Affairs committee. He would do a good job if elected.” A spokesperson for Meeks did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Because both the House and Senate foreign policy committees oversee the State Department, the race will determine who will be in charge of shepherding legislation to rebuild the department after the number of career diplomats was decimated under the Trump administration. Castro has already outlined his plan to “build a bigger, better State Department” — with an emphasis on diversity. He also worked on legislation to combat harassment and discrimination at the department and introduced legislation that would fund paid internships.

Castro also said that under Biden, the Foreign Affairs Committee should adopt a stronger focus on migration, asylum-seekers, and refugees, including by holding hearings on climate refugees, and that the committee should get involved in trying to reunite families who were separated under Trump’s immigration policies. During his campaign, Biden promised to form a task force that aimed at unifying the 666 kids with their parents.

In interviews, several Democratic staff members who were not authorized to speak on the record said that Castro’s chances to win the race outright are slim, but that he may have a pathway to a majority if he can cultivate enough support from both progressives and younger members of the caucus. And to that end, he has engaged heavily with outside advocacy organizations — taking what is usually a secretive, member-to-member campaigning process and turning it into a public effort to build support. A coalition of progressive organizations, including the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, published a letter endorsing Castro.

One Democratic aide interviewed by The Intercept, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that because Castro’s chances are slim, engagement with progressives and progressive groups was a savvy way to draw attention to the race. “Castro knows that he has a narrow path to victory that is dependent on defining himself as the champion of the new progressive foreign policy consensus,” the aide said.

On the other hand, although Castro has cast himself as a progressive alternative in the race, he is not a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has not been endorsed by CPC. When I asked him whether he identifies as a progressive, he paused and said, “I think if you look at my record, it’s been progressive.”

CLINT, TX - JULY 01: Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) addresses the media after touring the Clint, TX Border Patrol Facility housing  children on July 1, 2019 in Clint, Texas. Reports of inhumane conditions have plagued the facility where migrant children are being held. (Photo by Christ Chavez/Getty Images)

Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, addresses the media after touring a Border Patrol facility housing children on July 1, 2019, in Clint, Texas.

Photo: Christ Chavez/Getty Images

Many of the stances Castro has taken over the years are generally in line with the left wing of the party’s asks for a new foreign policy — in wanting to examine the expansive use-of-force resolutions that allow U.S. wars to continue indefinitely in the Middle East, for instance. He has defended the Iran deal and been an early supporter of efforts to curb the U.S. role in Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. And although all three candidates have stated their opposition to Israeli annexation of the West Bank, Castro has been willing to go further in criticizing Israel’s human rights violations, including by signing a letter critical of the Israeli government’s home demolitions in Palestine.

Stephen Miles, the executive director of the progressive group Win Without War, which has endorsed Castro, told The Intercept that progressives should demand a foreign policy in line with certain principles, not necessarily one that is made solely by progressive caucus members.

“Folks like Congressman Castro, who are not members of the Progressive Caucus, can really pick up this mantle of a different kind of foreign policy — one more deeply rooted in the notion that those who are on the receiving end, or feeling the impacts of these decisions, should be part of the decision-making process,” Miles said.

And one of Castro’s central promises of his bid is to increase the diversity of witnesses before the committee, which is an issue he has championed alongside the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The foreign affairs committees are known for calling on a relatively insular group of D.C.-based experts, and one analysis earlier this year highlighted low gender diversity among their witnesses. “Ultimately this a question not just about what is our foreign policy, but how we make foreign policy,” Miles said, adding, “We’ve seen the same handful of folks be witnesses, regardless, frankly of whether the chairman was a Democrat or Republican.”

Last month, Castro testified in front of the House Rules Committee in favor a rule requiring committees to track the diversity of witnesses — gender, racial, and otherwise.

“During my eight years now on the committee, I don’t recall that we’ve had a Palestinian come in front of us and give us their perspective on the situation in the Middle East, for example,” Castro said. “I don’t think that should be controversial at all. And the United States has over the years positioned itself as a mediator and arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. And if it’s going to truly be a fair mediator or arbiter, and you have got to be willing to hear from all sides.”

Correction: November 25, 2020, 9:05 a.m.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited an analysis claiming that the congressional foreign affairs committees have the lowest gender diversity of any committee’s pool of witnesses. The analysis critically cited gender diversity figures for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but did not compare those to the witness pools of other committees.

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