Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) passed away today at the age of 80. Just two months ago, after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he announced that he would not seek re-election this fall.
Lantos represented California’s 12th congressional district–a carat-shaped patch of liberal geography that stretches from south San Francisco down the Bay Area peninsula into San Mateo county. In an environment like that, his seat will no doubt be retained by another progressive Democrat.
But Lantos wasn’t just a garden-variety progressive. He was also the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And, as such, he enjoyed jurisdiction, in the 110th Congress, over funding for foreign aide programs and directing arms sales, training for the country’s allies, and other crucial aspects of the nation’s international relations. In that regard, Lantos performed admirably–he was a great friend to the United Nations, a strong proponent of diplomatic engagement with hostile country, and had metamorphosed from a loud supporter into a formidable critic of the president’s efforts in Iraq.
His approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was generally less even handed. Lantos was a famously strong supporter of Israel, and of many of its policies in the occupied territories. But he had seemed, in recent months, to have softened some of his views.
Now, though, the gavel will be passed down to a new chairman, who will be selected by the whole caucus (all House Democrats) in the days ahead. Traditionally, chairmanship falls to the senior member of the committee (in this case Rep. Howard Berman of California), but there’s no rule requiring that. When he announced his coming retirement, I made a series of inquiries on the Hill about which committee Democrat was most likely to replace him. Most of the people I asked–committee and leadership aides–noted the seniority tradition, suggesting that Berman would be the most likely to assume Lantos’ position.
But a surprising number said that Berman–who’s also the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee–might prefer succeeding John Conyers, whenever he vacates his position. And that would put Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) at the front of the line.
Both men–Berman and Ackerman–have views on foreign policy that closely mirror Lantos’. Both endorse the policies of hawkish factions within Israel, and both have taken a fairly hard-line stance against Iran–devoting similar energies to arguing for Iran’s economic isolation as to fostering dialog with that country’s government.
But there’s another long-shot possibility, too–one that’s appealing to some progressive foreign policy thinkers. Speaker Nancy Pelosi could, in a politically risky move, throw her support behind somebody farther down the line. And one name that I’ve heard mentioned a few times is Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.)
The six-term congressman has impressive foreign policy bona fides. As chairman of the subcommittee on international organizations, human rights, and oversight–all issues dear to Lantos–he’s investigated issues such as visa acquisition, rendition, torture, and inspector general malfeasance. And he’s been willing to inject life and reality into some of the more sclerotic foreign policy debates of the past several years. “While we have an embargo on Cuba and restrict American citizens’ ability to travel there,” Delahunt said in July at a hearing about iniquities in American aide and diplomacy, “we provide Egypt with $2 billion worth of American taxpayer resources, and Azerbaijain receives assistance as well.”
Delahunt curries favor with Pelosi, as well. At 66 years old, he’s one of two honorary members of Pelosi’s “30 Something Working Group”, dedicated to encouraging youth involvement in government and the political process. His ascent is by no means out of the question. But neither he nor his aides will comment just yet on what the future might hold, and on a committee stacked at the top with so many like-minded foreign policy thinkers, it may be unlikely.