The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s fast and furious’: New GOP committee chairs face learning curve

Eight Republican chairs have each served less than 10 years in the House, up from just three who took over gavels in 2011

Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) arrives at a meeting Wednesday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The last time House Republicans moved from the minority into the majority, Jodey Arrington was serving in the administration of Texas Tech University. Mark Green was running a hospital staffing company. And Jason T. Smith was serving in the Missouri state legislature.

Now, Reps. Arrington (R-Tex.), Green (R-Tenn.) and Smith (R-Mo.) are taking over three of the most important legislative committees for the new Republican majority in the House.

Combined, they have less than 20 years of experience in Congress. Not one of them has served as a committee chairman. Only Smith has spent time as the ranking minority member — but not on the Ways and Means Committee, where he will wield the gavel this year.

All told, eight Republican chairs have each served less than 10 years in the House, up from just three who took over gavels in 2011, when Republicans last took the majority.

Moreover, half of the 222-member House Republican Conference first took office after the GOP lost the majority in the 2018 midterms, meaning they have no experience in the majority until now.

How Kevin McCarthy survived the GOP revolt to become House speaker

Last week’s tense negotiations with a far-right faction of Republicans forced House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to grant concessions meant to decentralize power away from leadership suites in the Capitol and to the committees across the street.

Some Republicans see this burst of youthful energy as a good thing: fresh blood taking on the challenges of this new era.

“That’s a good thing for Congress, actually having new voices come into this place who’ve been out in the world. They’ve worked. They’ve run companies,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who is a new appointee to the panel handing out committee assignments. “They’ve seen the contemporary impact of what’s going on, as opposed to — and no disrespect to my older colleagues — having been just here for 20 years.”

Veterans of the last GOP takeover warn that these Republicans will get tested quickly on policy, particularly given the narrower voting margins that they face, compared with those faced by their predecessors.

“You don’t really know the job until you get the job. It’s fast and furious on the issues front,” said Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the former congressman who served as chair of the Ways and Means Committee from 2011 to 2015.

For old Washington hands, it’s worrisome to have so many relatively new lawmakers and senior staff in charge of key committees.

“It takes a lot of experience,” Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the dean of the House, who chaired the Appropriations Committee from 2011 to 2017, said Wednesday.

Still, Camp emphasized that these are “good problems,” because it means Republicans are in the majority. He retired at the end of that term, when the GOP’s six-year limit on terms atop committees forced him out of that plum spot.

Those terms limits are part of the cycle that creates so much turnover among Republicans in the House; Smith, for example, is succeeding Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), who retired at the end of last year when he reached the cap on serving as top Republican at Ways and Means.

But the intensity of today’s Republican politics has also led to churn among House Republicans. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who served two years as the ranking Republican of the Homeland Security Committee, retired last year, despite having four more years to lead the committee. He had been politically targeted by loyalists of Donald Trump after being one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump after the January 2021 attack on the Capitol.

Katko’s retirement led to a contest for the Homeland Security chair between Green, who served as a military surgeon for special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), who served as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan. Both hold impressive, patriotic credentials, but both were first elected in 2018 and have never served in the majority until this past week. Green, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, defeated Crenshaw, who spent last week publicly attacking the McCarthy holdouts.

In contrast, Republicans in 2011 picked then-Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) as the Homeland Security chair, after 18 years in Congress and his focus on preventing domestic terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Smith’s ascension to the top of Ways and Means Committee is historic. At 42, he’s its youngest chair, and, with 9½ years in Congress, one of the most inexperienced.

Brady waited almost 19 years to get the gavel with authority over tax and health-care policy, and before that, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had served 16 years when he took charge at the committee.

Smith’s victory for that gavel opened up the Budget Committee’s top spot. Arrington won the perch, which Republicans have stated is the starting point for their bold, aggressive agenda to slash billions in federal funds. Arrington has just four votes to spare in passing a budget resolution later in the spring, which would be difficult for even the most experienced chairman.

Arrington first took office six years ago.

The relative political youth of the committee chairs comes as neither McCarthy nor anyone else in his elected leadership team has previously served in a top committee assignment.

To be sure, some committees are led by deeply experienced lawmakers. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.) chairs the House Appropriations Committee, with control over the annual $1.7 trillion budgets for federal agencies, and she has served 26 years in the Capitol.

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), first elected in 2004, chairs the House Financial Services Committee after four years as ranking Republican and more than three years in GOP leadership before that.

“I’ve been around a while now,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), also from the 2004 class, said Wednesday at a briefing hosted by the American Petroleum Institute.

She laid out a bold agenda for the Energy and Commerce Committee, which she will chair, but also focused on reality-based ideas that could draw bipartisan support, given the Democratic control of the Senate and White House. McMorris Rodgers has spent the past two days holding policy roundtable discussions for members of her committee, sessions that will probably continue, given her nine new committee members.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who became Oversight Committee chair in 2011, suggested another warning spot for the new chairs: finding good staff.

Staff size gets cut in half, roughly, when one’s party gets demoted to the minority, and now, Issa said, the best people are making more money in the private sector.

“Where are the people that know what it’s like to issue subpoenas,” Issa asked, “to enforce subpoenas, to prepare for a hearing?”

Today’s Oversight Committee chair, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), has served just about six years in the House.

In 2011, several committees, including Appropriations and Energy and Commerce, lured seasoned hands to return from K Street lobbying shops, opening themselves up to scrutiny about their past clients, but getting very experienced staff leadership to run those powerful panels.

McHenry, 47, one of McCarthy’s most strategic allies, has already served four years as ranking Republican and now has just two years to lead the Financial Services Committee before making a decision about his future in Congress.

But Donalds, 44, who just won a position on McHenry’s committee, said these limits create a more dynamic GOP caucus.

“I think that’s a good thing for Republican governance,” Donalds said.

Loading...