House Republicans are facing a brain drain of historic proportions atop their committees — as many as half of their chairmen could be forced to step down next year, thanks to a 20-year-old rule.
The shakeup is due mostly to the GOP's self-imposed limit, adopted in 1994, on how long a Republican congressman can chair a committee. It's a policy that is widely popular within the Republican Conference, but is increasingly being questioned by members losing their gavels.
The impending shuffle will do little to change the demographics of the Republican leadership structure — almost all of the white men leading the committees will be replaced by other white men. But critics say the debate is about more than optics. Term limits, they say, effectively sideline some of the party's most effective legislators.
“You want the best person in the job and I just think to have an arbitrary term limit cuts into that,” said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., a former Homeland Security Committee chairman and a longtime opponent of the practice. “Term limits are anti-democratic. You’re telling voters they can’t vote for someone they want to vote for.”
Proponents, however, say the negatives associated with limiting chairmen or ranking members to three terms are outweighed by the positives of keeping committees vital with fresh ideas and preventing a small group of members from consolidating too much power. “We're losing a lot of great chairmen obviously,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told CQ Roll Call. “That’s kind of the nature of the beast since they changed the rules in the 1990s. ... I think the rotation’s healthy. I think it’s here to stay.”
Either way, the six-year maximum is unlikely to change, and it will cause abnormally high turnover after this year. Three term-limited chairman are retiring, most notably 60-year-old Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., a well-liked member of the conference who has been pushing unsuccessfully for years to rewrite the tax code.
Also retiring in the face of term limits are Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan also is retiring, though he has another term left on the committee before he is capped.
At a January news conference announcing his retirement, McKeon, 75, said reaching his term limit was the “biggest motivator” of his decision. Camp, when asked earlier this month whether he thinks term limits are a mistake, told reporters, “Yeah. I think so.”
Also term-limited are Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma, Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa of California and Small Business Chairman Sam Graves of Missouri, all of whom will likely remain in Congress with diminished influence.
Education Chairman John Kline of Minnesota, meanwhile, will have served five years as chairman or ranking member because he started his tenure midway through the 110th Congress, replacing McKeon. (McKeon headed to Armed Services to replace John M. McHugh of New York, who resigned to become President Barack Obama's secretary of the Army.)
Kline's future is left up to the Republican Steering Committee, a secretive cabal of leadership-aligned members who decide by vote who will chair committees. He has made it clear that he will ask for a waiver to stay on as chairman for another term.
Sources told CQ Roll Call that Kline will likely get the pass, both because he is personally close to Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who controls several votes on the Steering Committee, and because there is precedent for his situation: King served for more than seven years as Homeland Security chairman because he started his first term midway through the 109th Congress.
(If Kline doesn't get the waiver, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., could be next in line. She would be only the second female to hold a gavel: Over at the House Administration Committee, Candice S. Miller of Michigan is the GOP's lone chairwoman.)
McKeon’s decision to opt against asking for a waiver helps Kline, as well, by not putting Boehner in the bind of making an all-or-nothing decision about keeping gavels in the hands of his close friends. McKeon narrowly won a vote to become the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee in the 110th Congress, in part because of his relationship with the speaker. His opponent then, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, will likely ascend to the chairmanship next year, and keeping him waiting any longer is unlikely sit well with the House Republican Conference.
Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, also is looking to raise his profile, and he'll likely succeed Camp at Ways and Means. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia is a candidate to take over the Budget Committee in Ryan’s place.
Other chairmen face more uncertain path to maintaining their status. Issa has indicated he may ask for a waiver, but sources said it is unclear whether he would receive one. Issa could instead score subcommittee chairmanships: He is a member of the Judiciary Committee and could reclaim his seniority on Energy and Commerce, a panel from which he is on leave. He could eventually be in the running to be chairman of either committee.
“Without regard to term limit decisions and how they have changed Congress, he has many good options ahead of him in his congressional career,” Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said.
If Issa departs, he leaves a wide-open race for a replacement. Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Jim Jordan and Michael R. Turner of Ohio and John L. Mica of Florida are all possible candidates.
Lucas has said he would consider asking for a waiver if sweeping agricultural legislation remained unfinished. With that task now behind him, he is likely to hand the gavel to Ethics Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway of Texas, who told reporters he has been campaigning for the post all year. That would leave another vacancy atop the Ethics Committee, where Boehner has the sole power to appoint a Republican of his choosing.
Graves said in a statement that he is unlikely to seek a waiver, and sources said he would probably not receive one to remain chairman of the low-wattage Small Business Committee. Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio could become that panel’s top Republican next year, reclaiming the spot he had before he was ousted from Congress by losing his 2008 re-election bid.
Hastings’ Natural Resources gavel could go to Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, who declined to say whether he is running. King and Rep. Devin Nunes of California lead a crowded field to replace Rogers as Intelligence chairman. That post, like Ethics, is appointed by the speaker.
Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.