Term Limit Prompts House Chairmen to Hunt New Perches
By Guy Gugliotta
Livingston (R-La.) is one of 14 standing committee chairmen who must step down in 2000 because of a Republican caucus rule established in 1994 limiting committee and subcommittee chairmen to three terms -- six years -- in office.
Time is getting short. Livingston acknowledged that the six-year limit "had something to do" with the series of decisions that put him on the brink of retirement early this year, caused him to unretire at Gingrich's request and turned him into a declared candidate for speaker if, as he suspects, the Georgia Republican decides to resign in 1999 and run for president. (Gingrich has said he plans to serve into 2003.)
Committee chairmen are Congress's 800-pound gorillas, senior members whose control of legislation gives them an outsize ability to bestow favors on colleagues and attract campaign contributions from special interests, amassing power rivaling that of the highest-ranking members of the House.
Howard W. Smith (D-Va.), for instance, blocked civil rights legislation from coming to the House floor for 12 years in the 1950s and 1960s when he was Rules Committee chairman. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.) exerted a powerful influence over government spending as Appropriations chairman for 13 years.
Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) held the chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee from 1958 to 1975, and Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) held the same post for 13 years, until he was indicted for mail fraud in 1994. The most powerful of the Democrats' "old bulls," Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), served as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee for 14 years before the GOP took over.
Congress never had term limits for committee chairmen in the past and relied on parliamentary measures -- voting them out -- to get rid of them when they had to, never an easy task.
But with term limits in effect, things are different and will get much more different in the future.
Today Livingston is Majority Leader Richard K. Armey's competitor and daily headache, but he is only the first of many chairmen who will start seriously looking for new perches if the Republicans retain control of the House.
And when they do, the chairmen might have cause to remember the letter 16 of them sent to Republican colleagues last week, suggesting that "visibly fighting among ourselves" is "not the image we should project."
They might also recall Livingston's reaction: "I make no bones about it," he told reporters. "I'm gathering votes for speaker." By the end of the week, he claimed to have gotten commitments from more than 80 Republican colleagues.
What the rest of the chairmen will do when term limits kick in, and whether they will do it with good grace, are questions that remain unanswered, but interviews with several suggest that at least some will not go gently into the night.
"It was a stupid idea to begin with," said Natural Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), a signer of last week's letter. Dealing with it in 2000 "will be divisive," he added.
Young's solution is to seek a lateral move to become chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "There will be an argument, but I think I will have the votes," he said. "I deserve it."
Young, like Livingston, is up front about his intentions, as are Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B. H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), who wants to take over Veterans Affairs, and Transportation and Infrastructure's Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who wants the Select Committee on Intelligence.
But other chairmen refused to discuss term limits, and still others are sending mixed signals. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) promised in 1994 to step down in 2000, but when reporters told him that colleagues were saying nice things about him as a possible speaker, he said, "Don't ask me about that" and told the newsletter Congress Daily that such talk was "premature." He declined to be interviewed for this article.
Of those chairmen consulted, only Judiciary's Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) embraced term limits: Being chairman "is a strain, and three terms is quite enough," he said. "Having tasted the glory of chairmanship, I can live without it."
Hyde will remain in the House, because "I enjoy being a member," he said. "I ask only that I can put my two cents in."
This is the attitude that Gingrich and the framers of the Republican Conference's Rule 14 hoped to encounter in 1994, when they swept the Democrats out of control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Gingrich's "Contract With America," the House GOP's manifesto, called for term limits for all House members, but Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), in charge of the task force that wrote the rules, knew there were nowhere near enough votes to pass the necessary constitutional amendment.
"There was a huge nationwide hue and cry for term limits," Dreier recalled. "There was a sense that maybe by having [committee] term limits for chairmen, we could assuage the national appetite."
It was a popular idea, at least among those who weren't chairmen but who had sat for years on the back bench watching the Democratic "bulls" dominate Congress.
"Those of us who were railing about the old system felt it could best be reformed by going after the real cause," said Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), who could be in line to succeed Hyde as Judiciary chairman. "Most of the ills of this legislative dictatorship took place because of the chairmen."
The Republican chairmen weren't so sure, and when they read the fine print of the new rules "they were enraged," said one leadership source, but "no chairman was prepared to stand up to Newt Gingrich at that point."
Still, some of the pitfalls were obvious. To win a majority in the House in 1994, the Republicans needed most of the 73 GOP freshmen voted in. By this year, nearly two-thirds of the House's 227 GOP members had been elected after 1992.
"It would be kind of silly to take the lead dogs and throw them out," said Young, in Congress since 1973. "There's an awful lot of institutional knowledge, and good chairmen should stay."
What should be the cutoff point? "I support the concept and would oppose trying to change the rule," Solomon said. "In retrospect, however, it [the term] probably should have been longer."
Dreier, first in line in the Rules Committee to succeed Solomon, nonetheless said he "was never very enthusiastic" about the term limits rule and noted that as a conference measure, it "can be changed just like that."
But this seems impossible, particularly since there are so many more Republican nonchairmen waiting for their chance to lead.
And even several chairmen grudgingly agreed that changing the rule would send the wrong signal. "Sure, I'd like to be able to continue," said Transportation's Shuster. "But I'm acknowledging that it may not be the best policy."
What Dreier and the other framers did not immediately envision was the possibility that 14 of the GOP's 19 original committee chairmen would still be on the job in a Republican House in 2000.
The Agriculture Committee's Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) took the term limits hint to abandon the House in 1996 and run successfully for a Senate seat. "The choice was two more terms as chairman or 12 years in the Senate," Roberts said. He became the first sitting House committee chairman to transfer to the Senate in 60 years.
Without greater turnover, the GOP faces its own version of the millennium crisis. Having Livingston on the prowl may be a distraction, but multiply distraction by 14 and add the lower-ranking Republicans interested in moving up, and the Republican caucus could be in turmoil for the next 2 1/2 years.
"The real question is the jockeying," said a high-ranking leadership source. "We need to clarify this before the next Congress."
In the absence of any guidance, Young, Solomon, Shuster and almost certainly several others have decided that musical chairs is their natural next step. Having so few senior members means that most of them are stacked up behind each other on almost every committee. International Relations has three chairmen from other committees in the top seniority slots behind the current chairman, Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.).
"There's always the possibility" that chairmen "would swap committees like they changed socks," Livingston said.
And the next generation can be expected to push hard. Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), the most senior nonchairman in International Relations, badly wants to succeed Gilman.
"This year I made the decision not to run for governor of Nebraska because I had received assurances that I would be seriously considered" in 2000, Bereuter said. "I am the vice chairman now, and I am ready to assume the post."
If Livingston becomes speaker, if Archer and some others retire, if somebody follows Roberts to the Senate, and if a few decide to surrender the gavel gracefully, then the caucus may be able to accommodate everyone -- provided, of course, that the Republicans still control the House.
But the music stops in November 2000, and if there are too many aspirants for too few chairs, then somebody is going to be odd man out.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company