The long, slow march to power in Washington (and why most politicians don’t want to do it)

Every month or so, WaPo's Paul Kane -- henceforward referred to as PK -- and I get into an extended e-mail debate over something or other about politics. Rather than keeping that back and forth to ourselves, we share it with Fix readers. Over the last few days, PK and I have gone back and forth over the fact that nine Senate and House committee chairs are retiring at the end of the 113th Congress -- an unheard of heading for the exits.  Our conversation about power, patience and how Congress isn't the right path to get to the political mountaintop is below -- edited only for grammar.


This Jan. 5, 2011 file photo shows then-outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. handing the gavel to the new House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio during the first session of the 112th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

FIX: So, with Dave Camp retiring we now have nine Senate and House committee chairs leaving after this Congress. These were once the titans of Washington and power slots everyone coveted. What gives?

PK: The congressional committee chairman is a thing of legend in our history, such that the most storied chairmen effectively became as powerful as the speakers of the House or Senate majority leaders, if not more powerful. Richard Russell, the legendary Georgian, got his name on a Senate office building, while Mike Mansfield -- the longest serving majority leader in history -- merely got his name on a small room in the Capitol.

Even Hollywood took notice. In "Lincoln," it's Ways and Means Chairman Thaddeus Stevens (played memorably by Tommy Lee Jones) who's the moving force behind passing the constitutional amendment freeing the slaves. Heck, before he became a Senate chairman in real life, Fred Thompson played a CIA director in "No Way Out." (He was conniving with a Senate chairman to undermine the defense secretary!)

Yet for the last two decades, sometimes slowly and sometimes more speedily, the chairman's gavel has had a more hollow sound to it. Newt Gingrich began the march toward consolidating power inside the leadership suites and away from the committee barons. He also instituted two critical changes that really revolutionized things: chairmen faced a limit of six years atop their panels, and their selection would be done by a steering committee of leadership appointees who made the picks based not on seniority but largely on fealty to leadership. This made fundraising, political skills and loyalty the key traits toward becoming chairman. Democrats did not place term limits on their chairmen or ranking members, but when she became speaker, Nancy Pelosi continued to consolidate power in her office. That vaunted Ways and Means Committee of Thaddeus Stevens withered in its clout under Charlie Rangel, with Pelosi largely controlling key items like the Affordable Care Act herself.

Camp was one of the five most respected members of the Republican Conference, but he couldn't get his friend John Boehner to even consider the tax reform proposal that his staff drafted in late February. His retirement -- along with that of Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) -- has more to do with them running up against their six-year limit as chair/ranking member, but the fact that the committee process itself has so broken down means that there's little incentive for someone like Camp to hang around in chairman emeritus status.

FIX:  Okay, can we talk even more broadly about whether being a member of Congress -- forget a committee chairman -- is what it once was? Mike Rogers announced his retirement last week to become a radio show host -- telling anyone who asked that he thought he could influence the GOP (and the 2016 race) more from outside Congress than inside it. Jim DeMint resigned from the Senate last year to run a think tank for the same reason. Ted Cruz has made no secret of the fact that he wants to be a short-termer in the Senate. Barack Obama spent two years in the Senate before he started running for president.

I guess what I am asking is if the Senate and the House are no longer the political destinations they once were. Is wielding political power done more easily outside the Capitol Dome?

PK: Okay, that's a great question, and one that I've discussed off the record/on background with a few members in the last week. To a man (and woman), every lawmaker is baffled by the Rogers move. Most people understood DeMint's move, because deep down, DeMint wasn't a hard worker when it came to the day-to-day life of being a senator. He didn't devote much time to working on legislation, or working to stop legislation, or committee work. He devoted his time to the outside-influence game, raising money for insurgent candidates and doing TV appearances about how he was raising money for insurgent candidates (TV appearances that, he hoped, would help him raise money for insurgent candidates).

So people understood DeMint. He wasn't really much of a force inside the Capitol anyway. But Rogers is an insider, a guy who's worked hard on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Intelligence Committee. The guy has juice, and no one believes that he will have nearly as much influence outside the building as inside it. There may be a market with radio advertisers for a conservative who is thoughtful and smart, particularly on national security issues, but I'm hard pressed to believe that there are millions of listeners who will tune in.

Look, one senior House Republican put it to me this way: Get real, if you don't get a chill when you're walking into work each morning and see that Capitol dome shining, and you don't think you've got a chance to do something worth it, fine, leave. The reality, I think, is that there aren't enough lawmakers here who actually want to be here, who actually understand the long, slow march of history that Congress is. Ted Kennedy got it. Henry Waxman got it. Bob Dole got it. John McCain gets it. It's hard work, it's long and laborious, stuff doesn't happen fast, results are hard to come by, but each day/week/month/year is the chance to move the needle a little bit in your ideological direction. That takes time and dedication.

Cruz may think that he's having more influence on the outside, but the reality is a guy like Lindsey Graham is having twice as much influence -- maybe 10 times as much -- by throwing himself into every issue possible. He's a one-man wrecking crew on Benghazi, irritating the left. He and McCain played key roles in ending aggressive interrogations (waterboarding and such), irritating the right.

Basically, back to the original question, about committee chairmanships, Lindsey Graham is a walking ad for someone who doesn't need a chairman's gavel to wield influence and power. Because he's willing to work at it, dig in and fight. For a long time. That's what it takes. If you're not willing to do that, well then fine, leave. Retire.

FIX:  Right. But is that change a function of our broader culture or something that has changed in our politics? Culturally we are obviously shorter attention-spanned than we once were. (People used to read the lead of stories to see if they wanted to read them. Now they read a tweet. Or less.) So, it makes some sense that sitting around for decades waiting to climb the seniority ladder is something that, culturally, is becoming a rarer trait.

But, what if it's more indicative of how politics has changed? The most successful politician operating right now spent zero years in the House and four years (sort of) in the Senate. I believe that how quickly Obama rose through the ranks has changed the way most politicians look at the arc of their careers. If he can move that fast, why do I need to wait in line? In fact, waiting in line might actually make me less likely to get to the top of the political mountain.

So, are we living in a post-Obama era of political power and ambition? Promise this is the last question.

PK:  I think you made my point, in indirect fashion. If you want to get to the top of the mountain, politically speaking, you should avoid coming to Congress. It's a miserable way of trying to win the presidency. Ask Bob Dole, John Kerry and John McCain, and those are three guys that at least won their party's nomination.

What the Congress needs more is more Jack Reeds and more Dave Camps. Reed, the incredibly serious Senate Democrat, Camp, the wonk House Republican; neither of them aspired to the White House. Each wanted to come here and stick around for a good long time and make a difference. One tries to tilt the legislative policy windmill a little more to the left, the other a little more to the right.

Each has succeeded, even in these dysfunctional times. Reed is about to win another Senate term and he'll likely chair Armed Services, and over the next decade he will continue to impact policy, moving the ball little by little, in a way that won't get noticed on Twitter but will have real impact.

Ted Cruz may take a run at the White House in 2016, and if he does, the odds are stacked wildly against him winning. They just are. And after that he may go get a Fox News show and if/when he does, he'll be talking to 1 million or so like-minded people, day in and day out. He won't be actually moving the needle one bit. Back in the Senate, under this scenario, Jack Reed be will shaping America's global power structure in ways near and far, in ways that many people won't notice but will have vast impact around the world.

All from sitting at the center of the dais, holding a chairman's gavel. That gavel still matters, still has clout, so long as the person wielding it understands it's more than a toy to bang against a table.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Katie Zezima · April 4