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Menendez may take his panel down with him

Senate Democrats have a problem called Robert Menendez. It may mean the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which the lawmaker heads, will be unable to play an important and much-needed role of overseer.

The New Jersey Democrat became chairman of the panel when John Kerry was tapped to be secretary of state. Never a foreign policy heavyweight to begin with, Menendez is now the subject of conflict-of-interest allegations that are being looked at by the FBI and the Senate Ethics Committee.

The Foreign Relations Committee has never been a driving legislative venue, keeping mostly to ratifying treaties. It can, however, serve as a valuable classroom to spotlight crucial foreign policy issues — and as an oversight panel whose chairman can have a complementary role in shaping policies.

None of that seems possible under the ethically challenged Menendez, known chiefly during his single term in the Senate as a savvy, tough politician and a prodigious fundraiser.

It is one of these big contributors, a Florida doctor, who is currently causing problems for the 59-year-old lawmaker; Menendez is accused of having improperly helped the longtime donor in a dispute over Medicare billing and with contracts in the Dominican Republic.

The senator insists he’s done nothing wrong. Some of the allegations, of personal rather than professional lapses, may well be phony and fueled by politics. He’s presumed innocent in all cases; though the accusations are serious enough, even if there were no illegal acts, to diminish his credibility as a national figure.

Menendez is an accidental chairman. Since 2008, five more-senior Democrats have left the panel, including Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Kerry.

At times, the Foreign Relations Committee has played a pivotal role in U.S. policy. Negatively, it was a Republican chairman, Henry Cabot Lodge, who scuttled President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations after World War I. After World War II, another Republican chairman, Arthur Vandenberg, fashioned a bipartisan foreign policy with the Harry Truman administration.

Almost a half-century ago, Chairman J. William Fulbright, in a remarkable series of hearings, questioned the underlying rationale and wisdom of the war in Vietnam, which he had initially supported. The Fulbright sessions opened the door to a national dialogue and debate that ultimately led to the U.S. withdrawal.

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, in two separate stints as chairman, reinvigorated the committee, even if it was too often ignored by the administration and the public. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, the panel heard from Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni and other experts that the architects of the conflict were totally ill-prepared for a postcombat occupation. They ridiculed administration claims that rebuilding could be achieved within two years, that the weapons of mass destruction would be destroyed and that a vibrant new political and economic system would emerge.

Ten years later, Iraq has yet to create a viable political and economic system.

Even though they went unheeded, Lugar’s efforts set the predicate for the ensuing robust debate.

The shorter Kerry stint wasn’t as productive, but the Massachusetts senator played a contributory role as an unofficial special envoy to trouble spots for the Obama administration.

As secretary of state, he will be solicitous of his former committee. In the Obama administration, however, foreign policy has been set mainly in the White House, which shows little interest in congressional prerogatives; transparency has been less than promised and the role of Congress, in matters such as Libya, ignored.

There could an important agenda for a vibrant committee: the challenges of cyberwarfare; the Arab Spring; possible confrontation with Iran; and Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia.

The oversight function, so often ignored by Congress, also could be valuable; foreign aid, how it’s done, where it succeeds and where it doesn’t.

There are other Senate panels dealing with national security: the Armed Services Committee, which does a decent job of oversight, and the Intelligence Committee, which doesn’t.

Foreign Relations seems destined for a return to the days of ineffective chairmen such as Claiborne Pell, a Democrat, or polarizing ones such as Jesse Helms, a Republican, even though the current senior minority member, Bob Corker of Tennessee, is willing to work with Democrats. That’s unfortunate. Although no administration believes it, it’s healthy when Congress keeps its feet to the fire, not with cheap shots — as with the Benghazi imbroglio — but in a serious fashion, by broadening the discussion about major geopolitical concerns, certainly war and peace.

Instead, the recent warnings of former Sen. Jim Webb in National Interest magazine probably will resonate: “On the issues of who should decide when and where to use force and for how long, and what our country’s long-term relations should consist of in the aftermath, Congress is mostly tolerated and frequently ignored.”

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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