The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How term limits for committee chairs make Congress less effective

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Even though Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives after the 2016 election, there is once again significant turnover in committee and subcommittee chair positions. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Republicans limited their chair positions to three terms (six years). For the new Congress, that means new chairs on many subcommittees, as well as new leadership in committees from Appropriations to Energy and Commerce.

These term limits were intended to bring fresh new ideas to stale lawmaking institutions. But our forthcoming research shows that term limits have a different impact as well: limiting the effectiveness of committee chairs.

Measuring effectiveness

Our Legislative Effectiveness Project has created Legislative Effectiveness Scores for members of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973-2014.  These scores combine 15 indicators of a lawmaker’s success at moving their bills through the lawmaking process. Unsurprisingly, being in the majority party, having greater seniority or serving as a committee chair all contribute to lawmaking success.

The value of experience for committee chairs

Serving as a committee or subcommittee chair, however, is not easy. Chairs must juggle demands from committee members, their party’s leadership and others. It often takes a while for chairs to figure out how to do this and move bills effectively through the legislative labyrinth.

We have found that the legislative effectiveness of chairs increases the longer they serve in that role. The graph below shows the average effectiveness and committee and subcommittee chairs at various points in their tenure.

Committee chairs in their first three terms are about four and a half times as effective as the average lawmaker. What is striking, however, is that those in their fourth through sixth terms (before term limits) were much more effective, averaging six times the lawmaking performance of a typical lawmaker.

In other words, committee chairs are being replaced just as they hit their stride. Then the new chair must start the learning curve all over again.

We calculate that term limits on committee chairs have resulted in about one fewer major law produced per Congress per committee. Coupled with losses in expertise among subcommittee chairs as well, this helps explain congressional ineffectiveness in addressing major public policy problems.

If you want a more powerful President Trump, impose term limits on Congress

Assessing the new incoming chairs

Of course, these results are just averages. There will be some long-standing chairs who are less effective and some incoming chairs who are very effective. So what should we expect of the new committee chairs in the current Congress?

We looked at how the incoming and outgoing chairs have performed in the past, relative to expectations. Compared with others who are similar in terms of seniority, chair positions, and majority party status, we label each lawmaker as “exceeding,” “meeting,” or “below expectations.” Performance before assuming a committee chair role is highly correlated with future success as a chair.

  • On the Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is being replaced by Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). According to our metrics, across his career as a committee and subcommittee chair, Rogers was mostly in the “meets expectations” category. Frelinghuysen has most frequently been in the “meets expectations” category, too. That said, his consistency in shepherding appropriations bills to passage in the House (for Energy and Water in 2011-13 and for Defense in 2014-16) is promising.
  • On Energy and Commerce, Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is being replaced by Greg Walden (R-Ore.). Upton is most commonly in the “meets expectations” category, but Walden frequently exceeds expectations. His successes, however, have been with what we label “substantive” or “commemorative” laws, rather than the major legislation typical of committee chairs.
  • On Education and the Workforce, retiring chair John Kline (R-Minn.) scored at or below expectations across his legislative career, both in his time as chair and previously as a rank-and-file member. In contrast, incoming chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) frequently exceeds expectations, with successes such as her 2014 “Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act.
  • On Veterans’ Affairs, retiring chair Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) often exceeded expectations as a chair, including with a flurry of veterans’ affairs laws in 2016. Incoming chair Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) is fairly new to Congress, having entered in 2009. But in his first three terms, he improved from “below expectations” to “exceeds expectations.” In 2016, for example, he sponsored the “Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act.

On the whole, the institution of term limits for committee and subcommittee chairs undermines expertise and lawmaking effectiveness in Congress. In some ways, this may be by design: Term limits were imposed in part to consolidate power in the speaker of the House and the majority party leadership at the expense of committee chairs, who were previously an independent source of power in the House.

That said, the new committee chairs show significant promise for lawmaking success in this 115th Congress.

Craig Volden is Professor of Public Policy and Politics at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. Alan E. Wiseman is Professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University.