Writings and observations

Borah, Church and Risch?

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William Borah, Frank Church and Jim Risch?

As matters stand, Senator Risch of Idaho, who was in his early days in the Idaho legislature when Church became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may become the next head of that sometimes powerful panel.

That wasn’t a closely-considered proposition, at least not widely, until this last week. That was when the current chair, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, declared himself out of the Senate when his current term ends after next year. (Washington Post headline: “The Most Interesting Part of Corker’s Retirement Isn’t What You Think It Is.”)

Chair successions are not automatic, but usually the next most senior committee member moves up, and – if Republicans still control the Senate after next year’s elections – that would be Risch.

Next up after Risch is a senator much better known nationally, Marco Rubio of Florida, and he surely would like that gavel, especially if he’s looking at a 2020 presidential run. But in the Senate, the process rules. Risch was quoted as saying about the chairmanship, “We have a long, clear history of how these things are resolved in the Senate. We will follow that route when we get there.” Sounds a little cryptic, but I translate this way: I’m next in line.

Whether or not Risch had advance warning for Corker’s departure, groundwork for it is in place.

In Risch’s first term he was a nearly invisible senator – in news and other media and even in press releases. In his second term that has changed. He has become a frequent talking head on news programs, and when there, seems to discuss foreign affairs more often than other subjects. While many senators avoid (as Corker did) talking about re-election prospects more than two years out, Risch has made his re-election plans for 2020 quite clear. Whether or not Risch had a sense of the chair opening, he does seem to have prepared for the possibility.

What he might do with it is another matter.

Idahoans Borah, who chaired it from 1924 to 1933, and Church, from 1978 to 1981, were among the most prominent political figures of their day, and not only because both ran for president. Both had strong commentaries on foreign affairs, both were willing to buck presidents – of both parties – and both were skeptical of involvement overseas, in Borah’s case to the point of isolationism. Their perspectives were clear and sometimes ran against the grain, but stood aside from political considerations. (Both probably paid a political price for their views on foreign policy.)

How would Risch compare? During the Obama Administration, Risch was active on the foreign relations committee but did not mark out very distinctive territory. He delivered one of the best analyses anywhere of the prospects for American involvement in Syria, but it was not a clear-cut stance (take that as praise), and his views on foreign relations overall seem hard to summarize easily.

During the Trump Administration, Risch has been a Trump loyalist; he has come to the president’s defense on several occasions. (The statistics web site “538” puts Risch at voting 91.8 percent in line with Trump.) There’s little reason to think he’d be leading a charge to review or investigate Trump relations with other countries.

But a change of chair is months away. In the meantime, watch Risch’s comments, which can sometimes run toward the cryptic, to see where he comes out – a Trump loyalist or someone more like a Borah or Church.

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