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Bob Corker’s Quieter Foreign Policy Legacy

Retiring Foreign Relations chairman offers advice for new members

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has advice for incoming senators: become an expert, listen to colleagues and score quieter wins with an eye to the future. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has advice for incoming senators: become an expert, listen to colleagues and score quieter wins with an eye to the future. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker prepares to yield his gavel and leave the Senate, he has advice for newly elected senators: gain expertise and actually listen to your colleagues.

“Some of these people obviously are coming in with large platforms. I mean, they’ve been significant figures prior to coming here,” the Tennessee Republican, first elected in 2006, said in a recent interview. “Still though, they’re going to be freshman senators and they’re going to be sitting at the end of the dais in most cases in whatever the committee.”

That was certainly the case for Corker when he first gained recognition at the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee during the debates over the 2008 financial crisis. Within his first two years, Corker was already being included in meetings with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Corker’s first real turn in the spotlight came late in an infamous November 2008 hearing with the chief executives of major U.S. automakers seeking taxpayer support, when he requested Ford, General Motors and Chrysler explain how much money they were actually seeking — and questioned their viability.

“My advice to any new senator is to become an expert in a couple of topics where people know that you know more than anyone else in the Senate about those topics,” Corker said.

It’s a deceptively simple formula, but one that Corker recalls having to learn early in his first year, while still working out of the temporary office space allotted to freshmen.

New senators have such demands on their time that sometimes they need to take a step back in order to focus on a few issues in which they want to specialize.

“What I found early on was you can just be down in the basement of Russell. … You can be having 28 meetings a day and accomplishing nothing,” Corker said. “In about six weeks, I literally called time out with our office and said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore. It’s silly, it’s superficial, it’s not taking us anyplace. It’s not taking the country anyplace.’”

Corker is a regular in the TV spotlight, dealing with the foreign policy crisis of the moment during the Trump administration, such as the current question of what to do about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of evidence he orchestrated the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

But years down the road, Corker’s greatest legislative success story, the one that could give him a place among other iconic chairmen of the Foreign Relations panel, is the End Modern Slavery initiative.

Corker said getting the legislation standing up the effort was “amazingly difficult considering what the effort is all about.”

“We’ve got 27 million people in the world today, minimally, that are living in slavery,” said Corker.

“That to me was a big achievement,” Corker said. “We now are getting buy-in from other countries around the world to create a PEPFAR-like effort where we combine efforts with people around the world to really end modern slavery over time.”

Speaking of PEPFAR, Corker was speaking with Roll Call in his Dirksen Building office the day after the Senate passed, without fanfare, a reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which first came about under the leadership of President George W. Bush.

Corker crafted the Senate version of the latest reauthorization, along with Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The companion version from the House that is awaiting a signature from President Donald Trump would run through 2023.

“The other role that you play here in the Senate is certainly all those national security kinds of things, but it’s PEPFAR, it’s Electrify Africa that we passed that is focusing on the 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa that don’t have electricity. It’s hard to have health care, economic growth, education — when there’s no electricity,” Corker said. “They’re the things that, at the end of the day, cause this job to be far more rewarding because you know you’re touching people in a real way.”

Corker has had an assortment of bipartisan partners. He worked with Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois on the Paul Simon Water for the World Act and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, on the Electrify Africa Act.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, in excess of 57 million people located in sub-Saharan Africa now have access to electricity who didn’t before the year 2014.

Cardin was the lead Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee while Menendez took leave from the role when he was standing trial on corruption charges (for which he was later cleared).

“I’ve enjoyed both Menendez and Cardin,” said Corker. “They’re very different individuals, but we have had significant successes.”

UNITED STATES - APRIL 23: Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., confer before a Senate Foreign Relations committee markup in Dirksen Building on the nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state on April 23, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, right, and Sen. John Barrasso conferred before the markup of the nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of State on April 23. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corker also spoke highly of his working relationship with Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. But he was perhaps most effusive about Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons.

Chris Coons is an outstanding partner. I mean, I just can’t say enough about how much I’ve enjoyed working with him. He came here sort of like me. I mean, he was a county executive. I was a city mayor,” Corker said. “He’s going to be a continued force.”

Coons and Corker have teamed up on several measures, including the recently enacted BUILD Act, which is designed to create a streamlined international development finance agency.

“I learned early on here that if you really listen in committee hearings to what people have to say, you find a commonality,” Corker said.

Beyond working with senators on the opposite side of the aisle, Corker said the most important thing for prospective new members of the Foreign Relations Committee to be prepared for is travel, and a lot of it.

“Obviously in foreign relations, the only way to know and to understand foreign relations is to extensively travel,” Corker said. “That is a good thing for our country when U.S. senators know what’s happening in Libya or Egypt.”

Sitting at a conference table in his office, Corker looked at a map to rattle off a number of the countries he has visited during his Senate career.

“That’s the way you learn foreign policy,” he said. “You’re a road warrior. You get no sleep. You typically have to do it on a weekend or during recess. But understanding the world is the best way to make good foreign policy decisions.”

Watch: GOP Senators Remain Convinced of Saudi Prince’s Involvement in Khashoggi Murder

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