Meeks, Scott Make History As First African-Americans to Hold Respective Chairs

December 4, 2020 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – House Democrats made history on Thursday when the caucus voted to make Reps. Gregory Meeks, of New York, and David Scott, of Georgia, the first African-Americans to chair, respectively, the chamber’s Foreign Affairs and Agriculture Committees.

Meeks, who was the third-ranking member of the committee, bested Rep. Joaquin Castro, of Texas, 148-78.

Rep. Brad Sherman, of California, another contender and the second-ranking member of the panel, withdrew from the race earlier this week.

In January, Meeks will take over the chair being vacated by Rep. Eliot Engel, of New York, who lost his June primary contest to progressive challenger, Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman.

He’s told reporters that among his first priorities will be getting the State Department “up and running again.”

“We’ve got to make sure that the morale is returned there and we get our diplomats back in, and things begin to happen again,” Meeks said during a recent interview with NBC News.

Meeks also suggested that he plans a thorough inquiry into what happened at the agency under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“How can you assure our diplomats that this won’t happen again if we don’t look into what did happen?” he said.

After the vote on Foreign Affairs chairmanship, Meeks said that in the next Congress, the committee will preside over an historic shift in U.S. foreign policy.

“There is no shortage of work ahead of us,” he said.

“Not only will we need to re-engage with a world that has felt the marked absence of US global leadership, but we must also rethink traditional approaches to foreign policy,” he added.

Meeks said these efforts won’t represent a return to normal, but instead will be “a leap” towards a new way of doing business.”

“We will broaden our scope and outreach to parts of the world we’ve historically overlooked. We will return as partners to our European allies, but we will also need to build new multilateral relationships in the Western Hemisphere and Africa. We can only address the systemic challenges posed by Moscow and Beijing with the help of like-minded friends,” he said.

In a statement, Engel congratulated his successor and went on to say that in their many years working together on the committee “I’ve seen up close Greg’s deep knowledge of foreign policy issues, his profound commitment to an American foreign policy rooted in our values, and his understanding of the importance of Congress’s role in these matters.

“The Democratic Caucus chose Chairman-elect Meeks as the best leader to stand up for its members’ priorities. I’m confident that he will also carry forward the committee’s tradition of legislating and oversight driven by what’s best for American interests, not partisan gain,” Engel said.

Georgia Democrat David Scott has been a member of the Agriculture Committee since his election to Congress in 2002.

In a statement announcing his candidacy for chair the day after the general election, Scott reflected on a childhood spent living and working on his grandparents’ farm.

“The core lessons I brought from these experiences still resonate throughout farming communities today, and I have drawn upon them as I have fought to support the needs of rural and urban America,” he said.

At the same, Scott said, it’s critical that lawmakers recognize that “farm systems” have evolved.

“And our policies must reflect and urge forward these changes,” he said.

“The challenges before us go beyond simply fixing the mistakes of past administrations,” Scott added. “The lessons of the past can inform our growth as we respond to the demands of the future. Each hearing, markup, and legislative action must take a step forward toward building a more equitable, dynamic, and resilient agriculture industry that lays forth a new path for future generations.”

On Thursday, he defeated Rep. Jim Costa, his only rival for the post, by a 144-83 vote.

Capitol Hill staffers, speaking on background, said Scott, who represents parts of metro Atlanta, is something of a departure from past chairs, who typically hail from rural areas, but they said it signals a renewed emphasis on issues related to the federal school lunch and food stamp programs.

Scott hinted at as much in his candidacy letter.

“While millions of Americans are one financial setback … away from food insecurity it is the duty of Congress to set forth programs that provide a safety net for our most vulnerable citizens,” he wrote.

After the votes were counted Thursday, Scott said he owed his election “to a diverse coalition of members from across our nation.”

He also vowed to “use this critical opportunity to represent the values of our entire caucus and advance our priorities for trade, disaster aid, climate change, sustainable agriculture, SNAP, crop insurance, small family farms, specialty crops, and rural broadband. 

“The fault lines dividing our rural and urban communities are running deep, and climate change is now threatening our nation’s food supply. As Chairman, I will lead the fight to rise up and meet these challenges,” he said.

Among those congratulating Scott on his election was Rep. Tom O’Halleran, of Arizona, the ch-chair for policy of the Blue Dog Coalition of House Democrats.

Scott is a member of the Blue Dogs.

“A longtime member of the Blue Dog Coalition, Rep. Scott knows that in order for the next economic recovery to be successful, it must run through our rural communities,” O’Halleran said, adding “A strong rural economy means a strong American economy.

“Rural Americans are proud of their tight-knit communities, their hard work, and their way of life. They provide us with the material to make the clothes on our backs and produce the food that’s on our tables,” he continued. “They’re looking for a level playing field—a fair shot to work their way up the ladder, create prosperity in their communities, and participate in the country’s economic growth. Rural America has a champion in Rep. Scott, who has a deep understanding of what it takes to strengthen our rural communities, and we look forward to working with him to make that happen.” 

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