What Happens When Corker Lays Down His Foreign Relations Gavel?

Tennessee Republican leaves a committee far from what it used to be

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker is the first senator to announce his retirement this Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker is the first senator to announce his retirement this Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 10, 2017 at 5:05am

Neither Peyton Manning nor Reese Witherspoon is going to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next year. Not Charlie Daniels, Dolly Parton or Samuel L. Jackson, either.

The most clear-cut reason is that none of those celebrity Tennesseans is likely to end up running to become a senator, much to the disappointment of Beltway insiders starved for glitzy, if harmless, political distractions in the Trump era and already enthralled by Kid Rock’s flirtation with a Senate run in Michigan.

But even if a pop culture personality were somehow to succeed Bob Corker, a Republican who last month announced his retirement at the end of next year, the newcomer would have no hope of claiming the gavel Corker will be setting down. The Senate seniority system leaves no room for such leapfrogging from the starting gate into titular power.

Instead, the next chairman will be someone who’s almost the antithesis of a household name. Jim Risch of Idaho, one of the few truly under-the-radar senators despite almost a decade in Washington, will claim the job by right of seniority if his party holds Senate control in the midterm election.

A straightforward plan for passing the gavel fell into place soon after Corker became the first senator to reveal leave-taking plans for 2018. Retirement watchers are now focused on two other longtimers to the exclusion of most everyone else, and each could start a complex game of intraparty dominoes.

If Orrin G. Hatch of Utah goes, then Michael D. Crapo (Risch’s fellow Idaho Republican) could claim the top GOP spot on the Finance Committee — most likely leaving the party’s top seat on the Banking Committee for Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.

If Dianne Feinstein of California retires, there are three plausible scenarios for the Judiciary Committee, each putting a different senator into the top Democratic seat: Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont (now tops on Appropriations), Richard J. Durbin of Illinois (who’s already the party whip) or Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

In a Democratic Senate, meanwhile, the likeliest Foreign Relations chairman would be Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland. (Senior to him is Robert Menendez, but even if the New Jersey senator is acquitted at his current corruption trial, party leaders might push him toward the exit in the belief he’s become terminally politically toxic.)

Lost sheen

Claiming a junior seat on Foreign Relations, on the other hand, will be a relative breeze for Tennessee’s new junior senator — or anyone else elected to the Senate next fall, regardless of party affiliation or name. There will almost certainly be several vacancies, because many members are eager to give up their seats for panels where tangible results are easier to attain.

Very few people arrive in the Senate with their sights on that committee, for three main reasons. It provides minimal entree into the world of big-money fundraising. It requires members to think globally when so many of their voters demand they focus locally. And the committee itself has endured a steady erosion of influence — a consequence of the overall weakening of congressional oversight in recent decades and a profound, not-all-that-well-checked expansion of presidential authority over international relations since the closing chapters of the Cold War.

But in the history of Congress, few panels can rival the power and prestige that infused Foreign Relations during the heart of the American Century, from the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I through the denouement in Vietnam and the dawn of modern relations with China. Even into the 1970s, it was highly unusual for a senator to secure a spot on the dais before winning a second term.

Senators with national ambitions sometimes still eye Foreign Relations as a place that can provide them grounding, gravitas and credibility when discussing world affairs. And the storied history of the panel includes seven members who became president, 10 future vice presidents and 20 secretaries of State — Barack Obama, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and John Kerry being the most recent entrants on each of those lists.

Corker never set out to be one of those guys, although the stature he accrued as chairman since 2015 fueled his brief forays last year into Donald Trump’s running mate and secretary of State sweepstakes.

When he arrived in 2007, the only Republican freshman after an election in which his party lost Senate control, his lot was to settle for the leftovers. Foreign Relations was an odd fit for a real estate developer who’d been Chattanooga’s mayor and the state finance commissioner, but the consolation prize was that the panel had so many vacancies he got to be No. 4 in GOP seniority as a freshman.

Beyond Corker

Corker made something of the post from the start, heading to Iraq in his second month in office and soon developing a reputation as a well-versed pragmatist in international affairs. By the time he became chairman, he was known as a voluble critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which he labeled weak, especially toward Russia and Syria.

But he also put a priority on cooperating with Democrats in the pursuit of productivity, the results including two high-profile measures pushed through Congress with such overwhelming bipartisan support that they were reluctantly signed by presidents of both parties, despite their professed opposition. The first was a 2015 law, initially opposed by Obama, establishing a congressional oversight process for the Iran nuclear agreement. The second was the law, which Trump clearly did not like, sanctioning Russia for its 2016 election interference.

Some Democrats, lobbyists in foreign policy areas and even a few Republicans were hoping more of the same might be in store from one potential GOP chairman: Marco Rubio of Florida, No. 3 on the majority side, who since running for president last year has taken to bipartisanship on the committee in areas including human rights, State Department oversight and Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign.

Just a day after Corker announced his retirement, Rubio promised publicly that he would not challenge Risch’s claim to the top seat.

Risch would be the second chairman from Idaho, but few expect he’d be as assertive on oversight or as prominent in shaping foreign policy as Frank Church, one of the last dominant chairmen, was in the 1970s.

Risch is one of the most unambiguous conservatives in the Senate, doesn’t have much demonstrated interest in bipartisanship or questioning the Trump administration, and hasn’t made much out of his work on Foreign Relations. He is currently chairman of the Small Business Committee but devotes much of his attention to his work on Intelligence and Energy and Natural Resources.

For instance, Risch has not called a hearing in more than two years as chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over many of the hottest aspects of American foreign policy — the Middle East, South Asia and counterterrorism. That quiescence would have been unimaginable only a couple of decades ago, when the senator in charge of such a panel could have counted on regular calls from booking producers for the Sunday shows.