Trans-Pacific View

Leadership Shift in the House China Select Committee Could Cripple Congress’ Anti-China Momentum

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

Leadership Shift in the House China Select Committee Could Cripple Congress’ Anti-China Momentum

Representative Mike Gallagher’s surprise resignation will create a leadership vacuum in the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, which he chaired.

Leadership Shift in the House China Select Committee Could Cripple Congress’ Anti-China Momentum
Credit: Facebook/ Rep. Mike Gallagher

The resignation of U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher on April 20 has not only narrowed the House Republicans’ majority to a precarious one-vote margin, but has also cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, which he chaired. 

Although the committee was initially established with bipartisan support, disagreements have surfaced among legislators and staff from both sides of the aisle regarding the reauthorization of the committee as its current mandate approaches expiration by the end of 2024. Gallagher’s early departure from Congress has plunged the panel into a state of limbo and could further cripple Washington’s anti-Beijing momentum.

The House China Committee stands as one of the few legacies of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. While his efforts to form a bipartisan China Task Force that focused on the origins of COVID-19 faltered, McCarthy pulled off the establishment of the House China panel despite the Republicans’ razor-thin majority following the 2022 midterm elections. In contrast to the narrower scope of the proposed China Task Force, the newly formed committee takes a full and holistic approach, addressing military, economic, and technological challenges posed by China.

The hallmark of the China committee, as fervently emphasized by its former chairman Gallagher, is its commitment to bipartisanship. However, it is essential to note two significant aspects surrounding the committee’s formation. First, a third of Democrats opposed the panel, and even among those who supported it, concerns were raised about the potential for partisan divergence. 

Second, the timing of the committee’s inception coincided with peak tensions between the United States and China, occurring before U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping. While House Republicans held a slim majority at the time, they were able to persuade conservative and moderate Democrats – who may have remained neutral on China in another time – to rally behind the establishment of a tough-on-China committee. 

From its outset, however, the panel appeared more as a GOP-driven initiative against the backdrop of escalating China-U.S. tensions rather than a genuinely bipartisan endeavor. In an effort to address these doubts and concerns, Gallagher, as the committee’s chairman, tirelessly worked across the aisle to advance a tough-on-China agenda. 

Widely regarded as a rising star on Capitol Hill, Gallagher earned a reputation as a serious legislator deeply committed to national security issues. Under his leadership, the committee organized numerous hearings, facilitating thorough, sometimes even contentious, exchanges of views on various aspects of the China challenge, spanning economic, security, political, and cultural dimensions.

Moreover, Gallagher employed a multifaceted strategy, employing open letters and media appearances not only to critique the Chinese government but also to scrutinize American corporations engaging with Beijing. His approach to China policy, epitomized by the guiding principle of the China committee, was holistic, intertwining efforts across diverse sectors rather than fixating solely on individual concerns.

In the meantime, alongside the committee’s ranking member, Democratic Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Gallagher dedicated a significant portion of his working hours to crafting a series of anti-China bills. Although the majority of these bills did not progress beyond the introduction stage on the House floor, Gallagher successfully championed the passage of his most impactful legislation to date, the TikTok ban. This achievement occurred shortly before his announcement of early retirement from Congress.

Despite the fact that Gallagher’s replacement, Republican Representative John Moolenaar, shares a longstanding stance as a China hawk, the productivity of the China committee under his leadership may not match its previous levels. Consequently, the shift in the committee’s leadership could potentially hinder Washington’s anti-Beijing momentum, stemming from three key aspects.

First, in addition to chairing the China committee, Gallagher held memberships on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), where he successfully advanced many of the committee’s proposals, particularly regarding arming Taiwan through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) process. Much like his appointer Kevin McCarthy, Gallagher demonstrated adeptness as a bipartisan collaborator to achieve legislative goals.

On the contrary, although Moolenaar serves on the House Committee on Appropriations, he lacks a role as a defense appropriator. Furthermore, there is limited evidence showcasing his ability to leverage diverse resources to promote crucial security-related legislation.

Second, the committee’s future effectiveness is increasingly impacted by the escalating internecine tussle within the GOP. Last year, internal discord within the party presented itself multiple times over how to confront Beijing, particularly regarding issues such as the complete revocation of China’s “permanent normal trade relations” (PNTR) status. 

In addition, with the committee’s current mandate set to expire at the end of 2024, disagreements over its reauthorization have begun to surface. Some Republican committee members express uncertainty about the panel’s future, with concerns extending to other relevant committees whose jurisdiction may be impacted by the China committee. Will Moolenaar be able to address these concerns and successfully re-up the committee’s mandate, especially considering the potential for a Democratic House victory in November?

Third, the specter of Donald Trump’s isolationism looms over the committee’s future actions. If the former president is reelected in November, his dollar-driven approach to Beijing is very likely to clash with the committee’s principle of comprehensive confrontation across all dimensions, as evidenced by Trump’s abrupt reversal from supporting to opposing the TikTok ban. 

Trump’s growing grip on the GOP has led to fewer Republican politicians publicly criticizing him, potentially impacting the China committee’s operations. Gallagher stood out as one of the few open critics of Trump within the Republicans, capable of pursuing his agenda while heading off mounting pressure from Trumpism. 

In stark contrast, Moolenaar openly supports Trump and endorsed the former president’s bid to return to the White House shortly after Trump announced his candidacy. While Moolenaar was among the Republicans who diverged from Trump on the TikTok ban, this deviation is understandable given the ban’s widespread acceptance within the GOP, and Trump’s last-minute opposition to the China-tied app was totally insufficient to change such momentum. Given Moolenaar’s consistent support for Trump’s China policies in the past, it is unlikely that he would publicly challenge Trump over China policy if the latter were to re-enter the White House.

As the previous TikTok bill remains mired in the Senate, Gallagher postponed his retirement in a last-ditch effort to secure his anti-China legacy by helping to fend off any effort by hard-right Republican conservatives to thwart legislation providing billions of dollars in stalled security funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan – with the TikTok bill attached to it

Regardless of the fate of TikTok, the Biden administration has already set in motion the restoration of the China-U.S. relations, and the dynamics within the Democratic Party have shifted accordingly, showing a more receptive attitude toward engagement with China. This shift could exacerbate the already tense internal conflict within the GOP. At this juncture, the departure of a skilled and devoted leader on the anti-China front would not only affect the China committee itself, but undermine the purported bipartisan momentum for taking a tough stance on China.