Sen. Jim Risch hasn’t wanted to get ahead of himself over the last couple of weeks.
On Sept. 26, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker announced he will not seek re-election next year. That would put Risch, an Idaho Republican, next in line for the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Three days later, as Risch led Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon through Cravin’s Candy Emporium in Boise’s Bown Crossing, the senator said he still has a lot to do as chairman of the Small Business Committee.
Last week, outside the Foreign Relations Committee room, he refused to talk about a future chairing the storied committee.
“There’s a lot of green between here and the goal posts,” Risch said.
But just his use of the words “goal posts” suggests he hopes in 13 months to follow an Idaho tradition and sit in the chair once occupied by Idaho Sens. William Borah and Frank Church.
The Senate’s leader on foreign policy is an influential role. Its implications drew renewed attention this weekend, when President Donald Trump attacked Corker, a former supporter and friend, on Twitter. In a later Sunday interview, Corker told the New York Times the president’s threats against other nations could put us “on the path to World War III.”
As the spat continued into Tuesday, Risch, like every member of the Republican Senate Caucus, chose to remain neutral.
“Sen. Risch knows both Sen. Corker and President Trump very well,” said Kaylin Minton, Risch’s communications director. “He works with both of them. Sen. Corker and the president obviously have differences they need to resolve, but Sen. Risch has no intention of getting involved in this matter.”
Since Risch, 74, joined the committee shortly after taking office in 2009, he has been relatively low key. He chairs the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, but got the most attention when he opposed a new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia in 2010.
As chairman he won’t have the luxury of sitting in the shadows. Steven Feldstein, the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University, was on the Foreign Relations Committee staff when it was chaired by Joe Biden and John Kerry. He later went to work in the Obama State Department.
Feldstein said Corker himself was muted and had little foreign policy experience when he came to Congress, much like Risch. But crises like North Korea’s nuclear missile threats, Iran’s aggression against its neighbors and Russia’s recent actions, along with Trump’s behavior, force the chairman “to hold the president accountable.
“Given his track record so far, I think there’s lot of question on whether Sen. Risch is going to be willing to take that role on,” Feldstein said.
Risch has been viewed in Washington as a supporter of President Trump, backing his decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate and endorsing his tough talk against North Korea. Risch serves on the Intelligence Committee looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but has been skeptical publicly about potential collusion by the Trump campaign.
In 2018, Risch would actually most likely take the Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairmanship if it were available because that post has the most impact on Idaho — a state made up of more than 60 percent public lands.
Then there is the chance the Democrats will win back the Senate, placing him in the minority.
But rising to chair the Foreign Relations Committee would cap a political career he began as Ada County prosecuting attorney in 1970, and which includes leading the Idaho Senate, serving a brief term as governor and his current work in Congress. He would also succeed arguably Idaho’s two best-known and most accomplished U.S. senators.
Borah, called the “Lion of the Senate,” served from 1907 until his death in 1940. A brilliant orator, Borah led the fight against U.S. participation in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and established the League of Nations. President Woodrow Wilson argued fervently for the League, but Borah’s speech on the final day of debate in 1919 carried the day.
His oratory, compared to 19th-century giants like Daniel Webster and John Calhoun, affected young Church growing up in Boise.
“It was the towering figure of Borah in the Senate that first attracted me to politics,” Church said in a 1964 lecture at the University of Idaho. “Because he was a senator, I wanted to become one.”
Church served in China as an intelligence officer in World War II. He became involved in foreign policy early in his career, questioning U.S. Cold War intervention and the Vietnam War. As a subcommittee chairman he led the effort to pass the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
When he was finally elevated to the chairmanship in 1978, he skillfully rewrote the Taiwan Relations Act that protected that nation when the Carter administration recognized the People’s Republic of China. But he also carried the burden of passing the Panama Canal Treaty that turned the U.S.-controlled canal zone over to that country, in the face of strident conservative opposition.
That fight contributed to Church’s defeat in 1980 by Steve Symms.
And Jim Risch knows what it’s like to lose an election. After becoming the face of legislative opposition to the late Gov. Cecil Andrus, he lost his seat to Boise Democrat Mike Burkett in 1988. Make no mistake, he’s learned a lot since then.
It would be shortsighted to see Risch as simply a backbencher unwilling to step into a leadership role in the Senate. He led the Idaho Senate with a deft but firm hand in the 1980s. He returned after the ’88 loss and was quickly back in leadership before rising eventually to governor. In that office for less than a year, he passed a property tax reform bill, led an effort to replace a Clinton-era federal roadless rule with one of Idaho’s own devising, and even increased regulations to protect the public from mercury pollution from power plants.
In a meeting Oct. 3 with Meridian missionary Perry Jansen, who has worked in Malawi in Africa for Christian agencies working on health care, Risch defended foreign aid programs that leverage their work even though he knows many Idahoans oppose the foreign aid. He points to the 166 countries Idaho sells its products to from potatoes to computer chips as a reason his stance is good for this state.
“For people selling products we’ve got to look beyond our borders,” Risch said.
Republicans have gotten nothing done in Congress since he came, and he hasn’t been in a position to change that. But depending on what happens in the next 13 months, he may get the chance to play a pivotal role in the future of the world.
“The first key test,” said Boise State’s Feldstein, “will be how much is he willing to stand up to the president when he sees his behavior as taking the country in the wrong direction.”