We have to resist the urge to let the perfect be the enemy of the good

Congressman Eliot Engel, Chairman of the Committee of Foreign Affairs delivers his farewell remarks in the House of Representatives


Madam Speaker, I would hope that anyone who has ever had the privilege to serve as a Member of Congress leaves this place with a heart full of gratitude. After 32 years as a Member of this body, I certainly feel that way.
It is hard to believe that I have been elected for 16 terms, 32 years. I came here at age 41, not knowing exactly what to expect, and I have learned a great deal in these 32 years.
I send gratitude, first and foremost, to the people of the 16th District of New York for sending me here 16 times. It has been an honor to have your trust and to be your voice here in the House.
Gratitude to thousands of people: the Capitol Police; the Sergeant at Arms; the Congressional Research Service; the Architect of the Capitol; the Office of the Attending Physician, Dr. Brian Monahan; and so many others. It takes a small army to keep Congress running, and you seldom get the recognition you have earned.
Gratitude to my staff over the years, and let me acknowledge a few who have been with me for a long while: the staff director on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Jason Steinbaum; my chief of staff, Bill Weitz; and my administrative assistant here in Washington, Ned Michalek.
Madam Speaker, I will include in the Record a full roster of my staff in the office of the 16th District and on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, with my profound thanks. And, of course, Madam Speaker, I send gratitude to my fellow Representatives.
When I came here, I never could have imagined that I would get to be chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It is a committee that I followed for many years. It is a committee that I have always thought was prestigious. It is a committee that I thought was very important, and to be on that committee was a wonder for me, but to be the chair of that committee is just unbelievable.
I especially want to thank the members of the New York delegation, past and present. We are a group as richly diverse as the great State we come from. I am proud of the way we have stood together and stood up for New Yorkers, particularly in times of crisis and tragedy: the pandemic we are enduring now; Superstorm Sandy; the Great Recession; and, of course, in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
I am grateful to our leadership on both sides, and it has been a unique honor to serve alongside our distinguished Speaker, Ms. Pelosi from California. I have served alongside her for the entire length of my time in the House, and let me tell you–let me tell everybody–she is certainly one of a kind. I am privileged to call her my friend.
We work very hard here, and sometimes we are so busy working, we don’t get to know some of our fellow Congress Members, particularly those on the other side of the aisle. As people are coming up to me and wishing me the best as I leave Congress, it is people from both parties
who are doing it. My Republican colleagues are doing it and my Democratic colleagues as well, wishing me the best. It has been just an honor to serve with them.
We have to get to know each other better. I think we have lost some of that.
If you have a colleague and you don’t serve on their committee and you are not from their State and you are from the opposite political party, you don’t really get to know them. That is a shame, because I have learned that we have so much talent on both sides of the aisle, people who are coming up to me and wishing me well, Republicans as well as Democrats, and that is really the way it should be.
Again, if you don’t see somebody in the gym, if you don’t travel with them to some countries on the other side of the globe, if you don’t have much interaction with them, you won’t get to know them, and that is one thing I hope changes, and changes soon.
People have been stopping me here and wishing me well upon my retirement from Congress, and many, again, are from the other party, and I want to thank them, because it means a lot to me.
I have tried to be bipartisan, not giving up what I believe and not pulling back from what I feel, but being bipartisan in that you can respect each other even if you don’t agree on some of the issues.
We are all here trying to do the same thing. We are all here trying to bring things home to our districts. We are here because we love America, and we are here because we are here with people who also love America.
My greatest honor here has been to serve during this Congress as the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
When I was sworn in for my first term back in 1989, the then-majority leader, who soon became Speaker, Tom Foley of Washington State, asked me my top three choices for committee assignments. I had to write it down, one, two, and three. For one, I wrote foreign affairs. For two, I wrote foreign affairs. And for three, I wrote foreign affairs.
I did it because I wanted to emphasize the fact that I had hoped to be on the committee, even though people asked me: Why do you want to be on foreign affairs?
It is not a committee that is back home. It is not something that you can meet people on. It is foreign affairs. It is all over the world.
I haven’t regretted being a member of the committee and being the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs for one day. To me, what is going on in the world, what is going on in the world now, what went on in the world before, what is going on in the world in the future is so important, and this Congress needs to be engaged and this Congress needs to be very much listening to what is going on, and help move this country to the direction that we all know the United States can do.
I said foreign affairs because, you know, since I was a kid, growing up in Bronx, New York, in public housing, since that time, I have been fascinated with America’s leadership role in the world.
All four of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine, who fled the pogroms of the early 20th century, looking for safe haven and opportunity. And guess what? They found it in America. They came here before World War I. If they hadn’t come here, they almost certainly would have perished in the Holocaust.
This country has been a refuge to people who are hurting for many, many years, and I am grateful for it.
As a child of the Cold War, I remember learning about America as a beacon of freedom and democracy, standing opposed to an oppressive, totalitarian ideology. My entire life has been an education in what a force for good America can be when we are at our best, in the American values that support human rights and human dignity, and America’s character of compassion and generosity.
So, of course, as a public servant, I wanted to leave my mark on the way the United States conducts itself on the global stage. There are a few areas where I like to think I made a difference.
I have always had a special place in my heart for the Balkans and, in particular, a country called Kosovo. There are many Kosovar Albanians in New York, and that is how I first got to know the community. A good friend of mine, Harry Bajraktari, is the one who introduced me to the community, and we have been doing work with the community and with the country of Kosovo ever since.
I strongly supported the Clinton administration’s intervention in the Balkans in 1999. We stopped genocide from happening again in Europe by doing that. That was NATO at its best, that was America at its best, stopping genocide. A million people were being thrown out of Kosovo, and we stopped it. That was one of my proudest moments as a Member of Congress.
I remember talking with President Clinton and saying, We have got to help these people; we have got to help these people.
And we did. We know in hindsight that it stopped a genocide. And since then, I have been a champion for Kosovo’s sovereignty and independence. That country has made tremendous strides and is recognized by the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, and so many other important nations.
The people there are very, very pro-American; and when you go there as an American, you can’t help but feel how much they love this country and how grateful they are that we helped them with their independence.
I have been honored by that country to have had a highway and a road named after me. And they even put me on a postage stamp. I was joking with my wife. I said, You know, it is not a cheap postage stamp they put me on. It is a 2 pound postage stamp–two euro, I should say, a two euro postage stamp. What an honor for me.
I served for a time as chairman and ranking member of the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade Subcommittee, and I have always pushed for a foreign policy that focuses on prioritizing what is going on in our own neighborhood.
One of the last bills President Obama signed into law was my bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which required our government to take stock of what has worked and what has failed in our drug policy over the last few decades. The commission recently submitted its report to Congress with recommendations that I hope will improve U.S. drug policy and save lives.
I have also been a strong advocate for closer ties to our Caribbean neighbors. I wrote the United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act to push for a new strategy to engage Caribbean countries that seek out the expertise of the vibrant Caribbean diaspora living right here in the United States.
And when the Trump administration cut off assistance to Central America, I was proud to lead a bipartisan effort to restore those resources that are helping to reduce crime and violence and root out corruption.
Thanks to my partner and friend, Michael McCaul of Texas, who was right there on the trip with me, right by my side fighting with me, fighting with me for what is right.
Michael is a Republican from Texas. I am a Democrat from New York. We have become really, really good friends, and I wish there would be more of that in Congress. When you get to know someone, again, in the other party, and you don’t serve on a committee with them, but then you get to know them, you see how marvelous they are. We have such good people here from all over the country doing their best, working hard and representing their districts well, and Michael is certainly in that league.
So I was proud to lead a bipartisan effort to restore those resources that are helping to reduce crime and violence and to root out corruption.
I have also long focused on American policy toward Syria. In 2003, I wrote the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which helped end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. It pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon.
In 2012, I sponsored the first bill to arm the Free Syrian Army in its fight against the Assad regime. And just a year ago, my legislation, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, finally became law, providing the toughest sanctions to date on Assad, who has killed so many people, and his enablers.
I encourage the incoming Biden administration to take full advantage of these tools, dial up pressure on the regime, and try to stop the violence.
I said at the start of my time here, when I spoke to some people back home, that Israel would not have a better friend in Congress than Eliot Engel. And no matter where you stand on U.S. policy toward Israel, it would be tough to argue that I haven’t lived up to that commitment. I have been proud to stand with our ally, Israel, our closest friend in the Middle East and, I would argue, in the world, throughout my career.
I believe that the United States and Israel share an incredibly important partnership, and the cornerstone of this relationship is the support it receives from both sides of the aisle. Congress should continue to give this partnership its full support in the future. No one should play partisan politics with America’s relationship with Israel.
The Constitution gives Congress broad oversight authority to make sure the executive branch is serving the American people. As chairman, I have worked hard to demand accountability from the administration. It hasn’t always been easy, but during this Congress, the committee has succeeded in shining a light on some pretty troubling developments at the State Department.
It is important that this work continue into the next Congress, even as the Trump administration ends and President-elect Biden takes office. After all, we don’t conduct oversight just for the sake of conducting oversight. It shouldn’t be used as a political tool. If existing laws and regulations aren’t up to the task of preventing abuses and mismanagement, then we need to remedy these weaknesses. It is up to Congress to bend back the crooked branch.
I am confident that my successor, my friend from New York City, just like me, Gregory Meeks, will carry the committee’s work forward with distinction. I am glad that he is replacing me as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I know that he will do a wonderful job.
It is on that point, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s work, that I take the most pride. I have said for a long time that the Foreign Affairs Committee is the most bipartisan committee in Congress. Even at a time when our politics are so polarized, the members of our committee have worked together to advance American interests, values, and leadership around the world.
We don’t always agree. We have had heated debates in this Chamber over war powers, weapons sales, and more. But when we debate, we debate on the merits of the policy. Then we cast our votes. Immediately after, we get back to working together toward policies that leave politics at the water’s edge.
We have always said that the Foreign Affairs Committee is the most bipartisan committee in Congress, and it is. We have always said that politics should stop at the water’s edge when Members of Congress are leaving our country and going to other countries because when we are there, Democrats and Republicans, traveling together, we represent the United States of America, and so partisanship should stop at the water’s edge. We have worked very hard to do that.
Michael McCaul has worked very hard to do that, and I wish that we would have more of that in Congress, realizing that we are all representing our districts back home, our districts and constituencies are different, and we are all trying to do the best we can.
And I respect my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who work hard. People coming up to me and wishing me congratulations come from both parties, and for that I am deeply, deeply grateful.
So as I said, we don’t always agree. We have had heated debates in this Chamber over war powers, weapons sales, and more. But when we debate, we debate on the merits of the policy. Then we cast our votes. Immediately after, we get back to working together towards policies that leaves politics at the water’s edge. That has always been the culture of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
As I said before, I am grateful to my partner in maintaining that tradition, our ranking member, my friend from Texas, Michael McCaul. We have become good friends. We have represented our country together overseas and we have wrapped up a lot of legislative victories. I certainly will miss working with him.
You know, Members generally don’t get to know each other. I said it before, if you are not on the same committee as someone, you will not know that person. If that person is not from your State, you probably won’t know that person. And if you haven’t traveled with that American, or done other things, you won’t know that person.
We have got to change that. We have got to know each other. We have got to work with each other. We have got to accept each other. We are all here because we love the United States of America.
So with so much left on the Foreign Affairs Committee to do, I know Gregory Meeks will do a fine job of leading the committee. In the 117th Congress, I hope the Foreign Affairs Committee continues to take on these challenges. Congress needs to reclaim its authority in foreign policy that has been chipped away year after year, in deference to the executive branch, no matter who is in the executive branch.
We need to make the State Department authorization act a regular part of Congress’ work. And Congress needs to reassert its authority over war powers. I am confident that the committee can do big things, that Congress still has the capacity to do big things, to govern.
We are here to govern. We come to Washington from 441 different communities, each with its unique character and concerns and priorities. That is 441 elected officials whose job it is to stand up for our constituents to make their voices heard. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that the House of Representatives–not 441 individuals, but the body we constitute–has a responsibility to govern.
When I came here 32 years ago, the two parties looked very different from the way they look now: Southern Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans. The diffusion of political ideologies across the aisle made it necessary for the two sides to seek out compromise if the House was going to get its work done.
As the parties have realigned over the years, it has become harder and harder for the House to advance anything that stands a chance at becoming law except noncontroversial measures or must-pass legislation like the defense authorization and spending bills.
Frankly, again, as I said, it has become harder and harder just to get to know one another. I am a pretty progressive Democrat by most measures, but I always thought it was important to cultivate relationships with my Republican colleagues. We need to try to build cross-party bonds. We need to work together with all Members of the House.
I may disagree with someone on 95 percent of policy questions, but if you don’t know a person, Mr. Speaker, then you don’t stand a chance of finding the 5 percent in common and trying to build on it. If you don’t know a person, Mr. Speaker, it is so much easier to dismiss his or her motives, and that is really where things start to fall apart. No Member of this body doesn’t love America.
We share wildly different visions of the best way for America to meet its full potential, of the best way to improve the lives of the American people, but we all love our country. And I worry that more and more Members are mired in mistrust on the other side or saddled with purity tests, making it difficult to build relationships and seek common ground.
We have to resist the urge to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This doesn’t mean abandoning our principles or losing sight of our goals. It means acknowledging the progress in our political system takes time and perseverance. It means understanding that, as convinced as I might be that my view is the correct one, a big chunk of this body and of this country is likely to disagree. It means taking wins where we can get them, even if they are modest. Because when we accomplish even a little bit of good here, we haven’t done so in service of an idea or our party. We have done it for the American people. That is what it means to govern, and we are here to govern.
For example, I am a proud member of the Medicare for All Caucus. Going all the way back to my time in the State house in Albany, I have supported single-payer healthcare. I hope to see Medicare for All in my lifetime. But that hasn’t stopped me, over the last three decades, from voting for legislation that I thought would move the needle in the right direction.
I was never under the illusion that we would get there with one swing. But we did get the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and we did get the Affordable Care Act, which has made a difference in the lives of millions of Americans. It was real progress, which we are defending even today.
It was also more than a decade ago, and our country still faces massive challenges when it comes to healthcare and a range of other issues. We owe it to the American people to try to govern, to try to work together, not to reflexively reject what the other side says, not root our entire agenda in trying to make political gains in the next election, not to ignore facts and science and reality because political allegiances demand it.
And, yes, that means acknowledging the results of last month’s election and supporting the smooth transfer of power next month when President-elect Biden takes office as President of the United States.
The Constitution has given the American people this body, the House of Representatives. In turn, the House has given our country the 13th Amendment, suffrage for women, Social Security and Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. They weren’t easy victories, but if our predecessors in Congress hadn’t tried, then they would never have been victories at all.
As we enter the dark winter of this pandemic, we know there is light at the end of the tunnel. Today in the United Kingdom and soon the United States, the most vulnerable are being vaccinated against this deadly disease. That will soon happen here. But so much work remains before we can get back to normal.
People are out of work, out of money, and out of food. The American people will look to this body to govern. I know in my heart that we can put the American people first and answer the call at this pivotal moment in our country’s history.
The future success of the American people depends on the success of the House in meeting this challenge. So, I will be rooting for all of you.
It has been a pleasure being your colleague. It has been a pleasure working with you. It has been a pleasure watching how hard you work and what we do for the American people. Thank you for letting me be your colleague. Thank you for being so kind to me and my family.
When my son, who is now 34, my middle child, came to the House when I was first elected, he was 2 years old. My daughter was 7, and my other son wasn’t born yet. He used to point to the Capitol, and he used to say: “Capitol. Daddy works there.” We would all kind of laugh and think he was really, really cute. Well, today, he is 34 years old, and my three children have grown up with Congress, with the House, and they know how much it means to me to be a Member of this House and how much it means to them to learn all the things that we have been doing for the past several years.
I will never forget this place. I hope to come back and visit several times. I will never forget my colleagues and my friends. I will never forget that I am fortunate and we are fortunate to be Americans, to love this country, to help move the country to policies that we think are best for the country and for the world.
So, I won’t be a Member here, but I certainly will continue to have many friends here and will watch and see what this Congress does. We have some tremendously talented people.
Again, I want to thank the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi; the majority leader, Steny Hoyer; and others as well who really have helped me and have been part and parcel of what I have done. Jim Clyburn, thank you as well.
My colleagues, life is bittersweet, and there are happy and sad things that sometimes come together. I am happy because I have had the privilege of serving here. I am happy because I like to think that I have done good for people in this country. But I am sad to be leaving this body.
To my colleagues, I will be watching you; I will be proud; I will see what goes on; and I will stand by the TV or any other place and say: These are my colleagues, and they are very, very good. They care.
It has been an honor and a privilege to be a Member of Congress in the United States of America. I am so grateful to have had that privilege.
Thank you to all my colleagues. Best wishes, and God bless America.