Term Limits on Chairmen Shake Up House
By Guy Gugliotta
Disgruntled GOP chairmen are reluctant to leave. Some have simply decided to take over other committees where they have seniority, potentially infuriating subalterns who have patiently waited their turns. Elbows are already out in some cases, and early friction could easily turn into long-term bad blood.
"I've been accustomed to the seniority system, I've been here 29 years, and I've always been opposed to this," said Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.), the term-limited chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "You can't save the whole world in six years. There's some more things that need to be done."
The House has 19 standing committee chairmanships, each one a coveted plum that carries with it the authority to write legislation, manage a multimillion-dollar staff budget and hear pleas from lobbyists, Cabinet secretaries and even presidents who need something only a committee can provide.
Chairmanships generally are earned through seniority, and once a member got one, the only way to lose it was through resignation, retirement, electoral defeat or death. But in a sop to term-limits advocates, the Republicans under Gingrich imposed limits on their own committee and subcommittee chairmen.
Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) recalls the moment as "a time of euphoria and stupidity," with the insurgent Republicans determined not to repeat the mistakes of their Democratic colleagues, who during 40 years of uninterrupted control of the House allowed the chairmen to become a coterie of "old bulls" with power beyond measure.
But that was then, and now circumstances are different. The current GOP chairmen in virtually every case toiled for decades in the minority to get a shot at a chairmanship. Having to walk away after only six years hurts, and serious discontent threatens the transitions in at least a half-dozen committees.
Armed Services is one of the choke points. Spence doesn't want to leave and hopes for a reprieve because "anything can happen" in two years. Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) is first in the line of seniority to succeed Spence but also is term-limited as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
The rule passed in 1994 says nothing about musical chairs, but Stump wants to trade up from a minor committee to a major one. "Telling me I couldn't be [Armed Services] chairman is not right," he said, adding that musical chairs "is only fair."
Waiting in the wings is Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who sits second to Stump on Armed Services and has no committee chairmanship now. If the rule was put in so "others" could have a chance to be chairmen, should Hunter have to give way to Stump? Like many delicately positioned members in the war of the chairs, Hunter refused to be interviewed for this article.
Young, who makes no secret of his desire to swap Resources for Transportation and Infrastructure, says it is up to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to decide the legitimacy of musical chairs, and so far Hastert hasn't said anything.
This is probably wise. Hastert is saddled with a tiny six-vote majority, a limited agenda and modest ambitions for a party suffering from a catastrophic loss of popularity in the aftermath of President Clinton's impeachment.
His number one institutional concern is to retain control of the House. If the GOP loses it, he's gone, the chairmen are gone and the problem is gone. If the Republicans hold on, Hastert will be a hero and able to dictate terms to end the war of the chairs any way he wants. Why commit now?
"His position now is that we passed this rule and there's few people who want to change it," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. The GOP rank and file have little sympathy for the chairmen's problem.
This was the only message Hastert transmitted in an inconclusive meeting with most of the chairmen early this year. Banking and Financial Services Committee Chairman Jim Leach (R-Iowa) acknowledged that several colleagues expressed "some sore feelings on the subject," but "there was no illusion that the rule would be changed."
Other knowledgeable sources said the most emphatic protesters were Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) and International Relations Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), both of whom are facing dicey succession problems.
Bliley, who refused to be interviewed for this article, does not want to go, according to colleagues, and, worse for him, has no place to go because Commerce is an "exclusive committee," casting such a wide net that Commerce members cannot belong to any other panel.
Gilman also has nowhere to go and no real interest outside foreign affairs. He said he will stay on International Relations "no matter what happens." Waiting to take over is Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), who sits fourth in line behind three other current chairmen.
"I'm prepared to lead the committee now," said Bereuter, who is the most vocal of the subalterns, perhaps fearing that he could get rolled if he keeps quiet. "There are simply too many younger members here to permit the rule to be derailed."
At first, Bereuter's chances appeared iffy, but those ahead of him are clearing out. Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), the Education and the Workforce Committee chairman, is going to retire, and Judiciary's Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) is the only committee chairman who has expressed a willingness to exit center stage gracefully, wanting only "to be able to get my two cents in" from the back bench.
That leaves only Banking's Leach ahead of Bereuter in the committee hierarchy, and Leach will say only that "there is no subject I am more uncomfortable with" than his future plans.
Leadership sources noted that there are several aspects of chairmen's term limits that some members of the hierarchy do not like. Putting popular members such as Hyde or Bliley out to pasture holds little attraction, the sources said.
Inducing experienced members to retire is another drawback. Former Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) ran and won a Senate seat in 1996 in part to escape term limits. Goodling said he "probably would have stayed" for two more years if there were no term limits.
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