Congress international affairs committees and Main Street

One of the real problems of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees is that there is no real domestic constituency for it. That means there are no goodies to hand out to the folks back home. (Think about it, the Armed Services committees get to hand out big-ticket jobs to build jets, tanks and ships all around the country. And other committees get to hand out new buildings, roads, airports, etc.)

So the only reason anyone would be on the international affairs committees is because he/she has an ax to grind on a global scale. And sometimes, that ax is wielded against the very concept of  international engagement.  (As in the time former committee member and then-Western Hemisphere subcommittee chairman Connie Mack (R-FL) put in a line item in the State Department authorization bill that would withdraw all U.S. contributions to the Organization of American States.)

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy has a couple excellent summaries of the changes from the 112th Congress to the 113th Congress on the House and Senate committee: New House Foreign Affairs Committee takes shape and SFRC gets four new Republicans.

Look at the line up in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs:


Edward R. Royce, California, Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York, Ranking Member
Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, American Samoa
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Brad Sherman, California
Dana Rohrabacher, California Gregory W. Meeks, New York
Steve Chabot, Ohio Albio Sires, New Jersey
Joe Wilson, South Carolina Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia
Michael T. McCaul, Texas Theodore E. Deutch, Florida
Ted Poe, Texas Brian Higgins, New York
Matt Salmon, Arizona Karen Bass, California
Tom Marino, Pennsylvania William Keating, Massachusetts
Jeff Duncan, South Carolina David Cicilline, Rhode Island
Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Alan Grayson, Florida
Mo Brooks, Alabama Juan Vargas, California
Tom Cotton, Arkansas Bradley S. Schneider, Illinois
Paul Cook, California Joseph P. Kennedy III, Massachusetts
George Holding, North Carolina Ami Bera, California
Randy K. Weber Sr., Texas Alan S. Lowenthal, California
Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Lois Frankel, Florida
Steve Stockman, Texas Grace Meng, New York
Ron DeSantis, Florida Joaquin Castro, Texas
Trey Radel, Florida Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii
Doug Collins, Georgia
Mark Meadows, North Carolina
Ted S. Yoho, Florida
Luke Messer, Indiana

And here is the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee:

Democrats Republicans
John Kerry, Massachusetts, Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee, Ranking Member
Barbara Boxer, California James E. Risch
Robert Menendez, New Jersey Marco Rubio, Florida
Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland John McCain, Arizona
Robert P. Casey Jr, Pennsylvania Ron Johnson, Wisconsin
Chris Murphy, Connecticut Rand Paul, Kentucky
Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire John Barrasso, Wyoming
Christopher Coons, Delaware Jeff Flake, Arizona
Tim Kaine, Virginia
Tom Udall, New Mexico

Without any ability to pass out domestic goodies , why are these committees important to Main Street America?

Bottom line is that everything covered in these committees from treaties to foreign aid to top-level government appointments has a direct connection to Main Street America, it’s just that jingo-ism and short-sighted political maneuvers ignore that connection.

Protection of Americans and American Interests

More Americans are taking cruises. More Americans are traveling, whether for work, pleasure or education. A growing number of religious groups send volunteers to developing countries to help build schools or medical clinics. Other groups provide free medical care to those who are too poor to afford care or whose country’s medical facilities are unable to  handle the pressing needs.

No matter the reason for the travel, each America overseas expects to be protected by the U.S. government.

Perhaps “protected” is too strong a word. The embassies and consulates around the world do not provide actual physical protection to U.S. citizens abroad. (They don’t even provide it for embassy or consulate employees.) But what the U.S. government tries to do is protect the interests of Americans overseas. They intervene to ensure that Americans are treated fairly and justly by the host country.

It is only by having a strong and dedicated foreign service and adequately staffed embassies and consulates can the interests and well-being of Americans living and traveling abroad be protected.

The service is the same for a cruise ship passenger who gets in trouble during shore leave in the Caribbean as it is for a businessman looking to secure a contract to build an airport in a foreign city.

Thus, this international work affects Main Street. Most Americans probably know at least one person who has benefited from the efforts of the U.S. foreign service. It could be a soldier protected by a Status of Forces Agreement, a person who lost her passport in London, parents who adopted a baby in China or a foreign student who was issued a visa to study in the United States.


Without free trade treaties American-made goods would cost too much for people in other countries to buy.

Take two examples. In Honduras, with the Central American Free Trade Agreement, buying Hershey chocolate syrup or Tabasco sauce is easy and inexpensive. The only difference in price between buying those items in Virginia and Tegucigalpa is the cost of transportation.

In Brazil, however, those same items not only have the transportation cost but also import tariffs that are as high as 110 percent of the initial price. First the national government imposes an import duty of 70-100 percent at the port of entry. Then, the item is taxed by the local state when the goods get off the ship. If the products are being trucked to another state in Brazil, then that state imposes another tax. (You will note that the first state taxed the item even though it was not sold in that state.) And if it goes to a third state, there is yet another tax. And finally there is a sales tax at the store.

Brazil does not have a free trade agreement with the United States. Therefore it is more difficult to sell goods and services to that country. It is done, but at great expense.

The treaties that gain American businesses access to other markets are negotiated by the State Department.

To compare the two countries one more time in terms of trade, in 2009 U.S. exports to Brazil represented 2 percent of Brazil’s GDP. In 2007, U.S. goods and services exported to Honduras represented 38 percent of that country’s GDP.

Granted one is poor (Honduras) and another is wealthy (Brazil) but relations with Honduras are exceptionally cordial and productive. Not so much with Brazil. Trade does impact global politics.

And all those U.S. companies that set up plants in Brazil, China, Honduras, etc depend on treaties negotiated by the State Department to protect their interests and copyrights.

And of course, treaties also allow for foreign goods to enter the United States while, at the same time preventing those goods from being “dumped” on the U.S. market at less-than fair prices.

So, Main Street benefits.

It’s not all multi-nationals.

Having a vigorous overseas presence by the U.S. government to look out for Americans and American interests means a lot to small companies across the country.

Small and medium businesses — companies with less than 500 employees — accounted for 34 percent of goods exported in 2010. The SMEs represented 97.8 percent of U.S. exporters. We are looking at about $383 billion (yep, with a “b”) in export earnings.

These companies could only sell their goods overseas because the State Department laid the legal and economic ground work in the importing country.

Small companies in small towns benefiting from international agreements. Yes, Main Street benefits  again.

Foreign Aid

Now this is the big thing, isn’t it?

Folks like Rand Paul have long been critics of any foreign aid. They talk about how upset Americans are because the U.S. spends “outrageous” amounts of money on countries that disrespect the United States. They then call for an end to foreign aid.

In terms of “outrageous” amounts, the ENTIRE U.S. development aid budget represents less than 0.5 percent of the federal budget. Cutting foreign aid hurts friends and potential friends around the world for an act that equates to removing one small WORD document in an effort to free up space on your hard drive. (Apologies to Neil DeGrasse Tyson on that analogy.)

What does that small amount of money spent overseas bring to people in the United States.

The first thing development aid brings is a chance for another society to break the cycle of poverty and help bring the receiving people into the middle class. With that comes more purchasing power and more customers for American products.

The aid programs also bring good will. The people who benefit from the programs look more kindly on the United States and its generous people. In democracies that means a lot. The recipient governments cannot last long bucking the public trend if they are indeed democratic.

Aid programs also reduces illegal migration to the United States. In Honduras my wife and I have met numerous farmers who were ready to pack up and head to the States. They all stayed in Honduras, however, after they enrolled in USAID programs that showed them how to grow cash crops and how to connect to a market for those crops. Most of these farmers are now teaching other farmers the “tricks of the trade.” That means more farmers are not considering illegally going to the United States and more families are staying together and moving up economically.

Development programs that help build new markets for American goods, engender good will among the people, reduce illegal migration to the United States and help keep families together are worth keeping. Unfortunately these same programs are the ones that are the target of a growing number of short-sighted budget cutters.

Bottom Line

As stated, the international committees of the House and Senate cannot hand out goodies to their states. At least nothing that makes headlines.

The committees, however, do control how well (or poorly) America is represented overseas. They determine if America will be seen as a model for the rest of the world or one to mock.

The problem comes in when members join the committees to push their own domestic agendas. The problem comes when they do not see how the well-being of Main Street Americans is enhanced or endangered by how the United States is able to conduct its foreign policy.

Each member of the committees cannot provide a big prize for his/her state or district, but what they can produce is a stronger America and more American jobs by understanding and strengthening America’s presence overseas.


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