House leadership could shuffle powerful subcommittee chairs

House Republican leaders face difficult decisions about who will head key subcommittees next year, with Social Security and healthcare expected to be major themes in the new Congress.

The Capitol Hill spotlight is on who will head the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, but powerful House subcommittees could also be shuffled next year.
patrick g. ryan
Rep. Phil Crane’s loss on Nov. 2 creates an opening on the Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Clay Shaw’s (R-Fla.) six-year term as the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee chairman expires this year. He would like to succeed Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) as Ways and Means chairman in 2007 and wants to stay on the subcommittee, at least as a member, so that he can help craft a Social Security reform bill, he told The Hill.

Shaw said the GOP-led Congress was ready to reform Social Security in 2001, but the White House wanted to wait.

Rep. Phil Crane’s (R-Ill.) loss Nov. 2 removes some thorny issues that would otherwise have confronted House Republicans. Crane received an unprecedented two consecutive waivers to remain the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee chairman after being bested by Thomas in 2000 for the chairmanship of the full panel.

Because of his seniority on the panel, Crane could technically have chosen which Ways and Means subcommittee slot he wanted. Before Nov. 2, lobbyists said only half-jokingly that Thomas wanted Crane to lose.

Crane made Thomas’s effort to pass a corporate tax-reform bill more difficult by crafting a competing bill with Ways and Means Committee ranking member Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Thomas’s version of the tax measure passed, and the House-Senate bill was signed into law last month.

Crane also rubbed other GOP leaders the wrong way. During Crane’s unsuccessful campaign this fall against Melissa Bean (D), he was criticized by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for not spending enough time in his district.

The retirement of Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) has created an opening for the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee gavel. Among Ways and Means members who do not head subcommittees, Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) are next in line based on seniority. But there could be some shuffling of
subcommittee chairs. Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who is the early front-runner to replace Thomas in two years, could trade in his Ways and Means Select Revenues Subcommittee gavel for another Ways and Means subcommittee.

Some on K Street say subcommittee chairmen on Ways and Means are not as important as on other committees because Thomas limits their power and has his fingerprints on everything that the committee does.

The Energy and Commerce Committee, which shares jurisdiction with Ways and Means on Medicare, could also see changes in the new Congress. Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) wants to make his mark after taking over for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

Some have suggested that House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairman Mike Bilirakis (R-Fla.) could take over the veterans-affairs panel. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N. J.), who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, has two years left in his term, but GOP the leadership is irked by his aggressive push on
veterans funding issues and Capitol aides say his gavel could be taken away.

Veterans groups are rallying to Smith’s defense and believe he will complete his term.

Capitol Hill sources say that Smith could stay on and Bilirakis would be replaced on the health subcommittee. Barton does not have extensive expertise in health and needs an aggressive lawmaker who does so he can compete with Ways and Means on their shared territory, these sources add.

The 109th Congress is expected to tackle many Medicare issues, notably the implementation of the new Medicare drug law.

Lobbyists and Hill aides say Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) wants the chair of the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee. To do so, he would have to jump over several lawmakers who have seniority.

Some healthcare experts note that Norwood voted against the Medicare prescription-drug bill but Hastert seems to respect him. In his book, Speaker, Hastert writes, “Charlie Norwood, in my opinion, always wanted to do the right thing.”

Elevating Norwood would likely trigger more healthcare debates between him and Thomas. Addressing a healthcare squabble between the two outspoken lawmakers, Hastert writes, “Thomas and Norwood just didn’t like each other. … A lot of times, Charlie could tell you, I had to kick him under the table to keep his mouth shut so we didn’t have fistfights over the top of the table.”

Some believe the GOP leadership wants to avoid healthcare confrontations within the GOP caucus next year. A source familiar with the Energy and Commerce Committee said a postscript to the Thomas-Norwood anecdote is that Norwood abided by Hastert’s instructions and bit his tongue. This showed that Norwood respects authority, the source said.