The Cable

Berman’s loss reshuffles the foreign policy deck on Capitol Hill

The departure of House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) from Congress following his loss to Brad Sherman Tuesday night will shake up the foreign-policy leadership in the Democratic caucus and leave a large gap in several specific issues that Berman made his own.

Berman lost one of the ugliest and most costly of this political season Tuesday to fellow Californian Brad Sherman night despite having the endorsements of several top lawmakers and former officials from both sides of the aisle, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and the three amigos of Senate foreign policy John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Sherman outspent and out campaigned Berman in the contest to represent the newly drawn district that forced the two sitting senior lawmakers to go head to head.

In Congress, Berman will be remembered for his decades of tireless work on foreign policy and his reputation as a legislator who sought to build consensus to push forward a bipartisan agenda, including sanctions against Iran, the strengthening of the alliance with Israel, and the defense of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. Berman was also a globetrotter, spending time maintaining relationships with foreign officials abroad, something Sherman attacked him for during the campaign.

"Howard Berman has been one of the most effective legislators in Congress, someone who has inspired both bipartisan and bicameral respect for his principled and thoughtful leadership on national security issues, as well as for his warmth and decency," Lieberman told The Cable. "Although Howard's time in the House of Representatives is unfortunately now ending, he leaves behind an unmatched record of accomplishment, and I hope the next administration finds ways to make use of his unique talents in our nation's service."

With Berman's exit, the top Democrat spot on the committee is set to be vacant. The next three Democrats on the committee in order of seniority are Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa), and Sherman. But the odds-on favorite to replace Berman on the committee is Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), according to House aides.

Ackerman is retiring. Faleiomarvarga wants the job, but as a delegate without full congressional powers, he will face difficulty lobbying for the honor. He's said to be in poor health, is not a lawmaker known for his fundraising prowess (which counts when it comes time to choose committee chairs), and his reputation has suffered by revelations that he has been taking free trips to Bahrain sponsored by his lobbyist friend while also defending the Bahraini regime.

Sherman may make a play for Berman's committee leadership post, but his vicious election battle may have earned him some enemies on the committee, and members could block Sherman's accession a final favor to their departing colleague Berman, aides said.

"That leaves Engel, who has the seniority, visibility, and is on the right side of the foreign-policy issues most people care about in Congress," one House Democratic aide told The Cable.

On the Republican side, HFAC committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has reached her term limit and must hand over the reins of the panel. The next five Republicans on the committee by seniority are Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Elton Gallegly (R-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Donald Manzullo (R-IL), and Ed Royce (R-CA).

The consensus on Capitol Hill is that Royce will get the job. Smith is hugely active on human rights issues but not known for leadership on the wider range of issues for which the committee is responsible. Rohrabacher is known for invoking controversy and sometimes igniting international scuffles and is likely to stay as the chair of the oversight and investigations subcommittee. Gallegly and Manzullo are retiring, Manzullo to be the next president of the Korea Economic Institute. Ros-Lehtinen is said to be angling for the Middle East Subcommittee chair now held by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH).

When Berman leaves, some of his pet issues will lose their biggest advocate and perhaps their legislative momentum. Berman and his staff wrote a foreign aid reform bill. He also wrote comprehensive legislation to reform the export control regime. He dived deep into the issue of international intellectual property rights. He once lobbied Egypt to allow the export of Lulavs (palm fronds) to head off a shortage before the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Hill aides said that Berman will be missed.

"He's the last of the Mohicans, very much in the mindset and style of [departing SFRC ranking Republican Sen.] Richard Lugar. At their heart, they are both policy wonks," one House Democratic aide said. "Neither of them are flashy, nor care for gratuitous headlines, but are more concerned with getting things done. When it comes to foreign policy in the House, there just aren't many people like Howard left, certainly not on the House Foreign Affairs Committee."

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The Cable

Foreign election officials amazed by trust-based U.S. voting system

For the head of Libya's national election commission, the method by which Americans vote is startling in that it depends so much on trust and the good faith of election officials and voters alike.

"It's an incredible system," said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today's presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

"It's very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it," Elabbar said.

The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there's often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there's no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.

Sara Al-Utaibi, IFES deputy country director in Jordan, said that the fact that voting is done differently in different U.S. states is highly unusual. In Maryland, for example, electronic voting is common, whereas in Washington paper ballots predominate. If there are different voting procedures within another country, someone assumes fraud or abuse, she said.

"What's very unique about the way the Americans do it, it's not the process, it's the confidence that's placed in the process," she said. "This is what lacks in other countries. They say if this would happen in Arab countries it would not work the way it does in the United States."

Many of the visiting international officials noted that there were no observers at the polling places to ensure that proper voting procedures were being followed. IFES staffers explained to them that in the United States, election observers are sent by the political parties, which wouldn't use their limited resources inside the District of Columbia, where President Barack Obama is a heavy favorite.

Many of the visiting election officials were from emerging democracies, including Tunisia, Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria, and Yemen. The will spend a total of four days in the United States in a series of workshops and seminars.

"The point is to bring the highest-level commissioners and election staff here so they can connect and exchange ideas," said Ambar Riaz Zobairi, IFES deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. "The overall point is to highlight the very interesting electoral process that we have here."

Provisional ballots are also a source of puzzlement for international officials. American voters who don't find their names on the rolls can vote anyway and verify their eligibility days later, a system not often found abroad. Ballots in foreign countries are often not as complicated as ballots in the United States.

"Their ballots are simple. We have a range of things on our ballot, referendums and such. In most countries, it's just president and parliament," said Cindy McCormick, an IFES consultant with more than 30 years of election monitoring experience.

One observer from Lebanon who did not want to be quoted pressed staffers on how the ballots are handled before and after voting day. He was amazed that ballots are sent directly to poll workers and that the handling of those ballots after the voting ends is also entrusted to local poll workers.

In Morocco, the poll workers take the unused ballots outside at the end of the night and burn them, McCormick said. In Russia, unused ballots are piled up and a poll worker drives a spike though the pile with a hammer. In The Gambia, a country in West Africa, each voter is given exactly one marble, which they place in one of the large marble collecting jars that are set up for each candidate.

"The polls workers are listening because when the marble goes into the jar, there's a ding. And if there are two dings, maybe somebody came in with extra marbles in their pocket, so they call the police," she said.

Asked how Gambians do a recount with the marble-based voting system, McCormick said, "I have no idea."

Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy