Female GOP committee leaders are a rarity in the House

In 2000, then-Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) was a candidate for the chairmanship of the Banking and Financial Services Committee. If selected, she would have been the first female leader of the committee.

But as a centrist, she was unlikely to win the appointment.

Roukema felt the sting of leadership when she was passed over for the gavel of what is now called Financial Services Committee. It instead was given to a more junior member, Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio).

“I was an independent voter in the Congress, and I voted my conscience and my state,” Roukema said. “That brought me down in [leadership’s] estimation.

“I was not elected to do what leadership [said]. I was elected to do what my intelligence, my conscience and my constituents needed. … That was my reason for being in Congress.”

For the past several elections, both major political parties have reached out for the female vote — seeking to gain an advantage in the prized “soccer mom” constituency.

Despite those outreach efforts, GOP women in the House still lack a distinction their male colleagues have held consistently for decades. It has been eight years since a female member of the House has held the gavel as chairwoman of a full committee. Rep. Jan Meyers (R-Kan.) chaired the Small Business Committee in the 104th Congress and then retired.

In contrast, House Democrats have more women in high-ranking positions, having four female ranking members of full committees as well as a female minority leader.

The leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Her lead over other Democrats in polls comes as ABC has launched a new show based on a woman becoming the first commander in chief.

Republican women in the Senate play a larger policymaking role than their House counterparts. Some of that is attributable to the Senate system of being appointed to a chairmanship based solely on seniority.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, is a centrist who has gone against the wishes of leadership and President Bush many times. Most recently, Snowe joined the Gang of 14 senators that derailed the so-called “nuclear option” on judicial filibusters.

In 2003, Snowe and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) forced the Senate to roughly halve Bush’s proposed tax cuts from its original $726 billion figure. Despite intense White House pressure, Snowe and other centrists held their ground.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) is also known to stray from the party line on issues that deal with abortion, stem cells and the environment. Collins played a major role in revamping the nation’s intelligence operations last year and is leading the Senate investigation on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

In the House, some members and women’s advocacy groups attribute the lack of women in leadership to the ratio of women to men in the chamber. Others say some women do not desire the extra workload and stress that comes with leading a committee.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), the highest-ranking woman in the GOP caucus, said the reasons for the absence of women in leadership include a combination of numbers, seniority and ambition.

“Leadership isn’t that big, and there aren’t many women” in the House, Pryce said. Being a representative “is a hard enough job to do. … Leadership doubles your work. Many women may not want to do it because of family.”

Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) agreed, explaining the pull she feels between her role as a legislator and as a wife and mother.

“I still feel like I have two lives. I wonder sometime perhaps if men look at it a little differently like [Congress] is their life,” she said.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, who has his eyes on a leadership position, said that while managing the committee takes up the bulk of his day, the work is worth the extra effort. He said most members, male or female, would prefer to be chairmen.

“Some may prefer not to chair, but I think that’s pretty rare,” he said.

Pryce stressed the importance of having a female point of view at the leadership table. She described her own leadership style as inclusive.

“I try to get people to reconcile before it hits the front page,” Pryce explained. “Running a committee in a less confrontational manner might help change the legislative process.”

She said her position has allowed the conference to be “more service-oriented” and to reach out to media outlets such as women’s magazines.

“[The magazines] have not been deliverers of our message, and that is partly our fault because no one had reached out to them,” Pryce said. “We have a responsibility to make sure that a woman’s perspective is always represented.”

Former Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), who served as vice chairwoman of the House Republican Conference in the 105th Congress, said, “It was amazing how important it was that a woman be at the [leadership] table.”

Issues such as domestic violence, stalking legislation and women’s healthcare have been brought to the forefront because of female legislators, Center for American Women in Politics Director Debbie Walsh said.

She added, “Women bring different issues to the floor because they have different life experiences.”

Because of the GOP’s six-year term limit on leading panels, 10 chairmanships will change hands by early 2007, possibly opening the doors for a woman to grab a gavel.

Asked whether she would pursue the chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee, Pryce said she was concentrating on her work as conference chairwoman for the time being but did not rule out the possibility.

Pryce is not the only female member to eye a gavel; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) have expressed their ambitions to go to take the center chair.

House Republicans say they are committed to promoting female members.

“The Speaker believes that we should be as inclusive as possible,” said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill). “We have several women that would make outstanding leaders.”

There is no doubt among members of the House that seniority plays a large role in the assignment of chairmanships. However, Ros-Lehtinen hopes merit will trump seniority in her pursuit of the International Relations chair.

Other than retiring Chairman Henry Hyde (Ill.), GOP members who have more seniority on the International Relations Committee include Reps. James Leach (Iowa), Christopher Smith (N.J.), Dan Burton (Ind.) and Elton Gallegly (Calif.).

“There are members who are senior to me, but that’s not the only factor,” she said. Ros-Lehtinen added that she hopes her record as an International Relations subcommittee chairwoman and her loyalty to leadership would put her above the competition.

Ros-Lehtinen said, “I am very aggressively and proactively seeking the International Relations Committee chair, but I do so based on my solid record of achievements, not on my gender.”

Rep. Susan Kelly (R-N.Y.), who chairs the House Financial Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, compared a subcommittee chairmanship position to running a small business and the full committee to a larger and expanded operation.

Kelly, who chaired the subcommittee during the first congressional inquires on the Enron and WorldCom scandals, said, “The issues you manage and the challenges you meet as a subcommittee chair are quality preparation for the issues and challenges a committee chair faces.”

Johnson, the longest serving female GOP member in the House, is attempting to position herself for the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship. She heads the influential Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health but is considered a long shot to replace the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), because of her centrist voting record and support of abortion rights.

She declined to comment for this article.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said it is noteworthy to compare the attention the Bush administration draws to women in the Cabinet to the Congress, which has, according to Lake, not promoted women as much as it should.

Lake added, “I don’t think either party really showcases the House women very well.”

Walsh suggested a combination of reasons why so few women have taken the reigns of a committee recently.

“A number of the [Republican] women are more moderate … and by and large [Congress] is still a male institution,” Walsh said.

Unlike Ros-Lehtinen, who has spent 15 years serving on the International Relations Committee, Dunn said some female members prefer to jump to different committees, which in many ways forfeits any claim to a chairmanship.

“Women tend to just want to get things done,” Dunn said. She explained that to be a committee chairman, a member must stick with the same committee for a long time.

She added that one of the reasons she left Congress was that she had little hope of chairing a committee.

The lack of female representation in leadership could be hurting the Republican Party. In a May memo released by Lake Snell Perry Mermin & Associates Inc., most women favored Democrats when asked which party they were affiliated with.

House Democrats attribute that to the positioning of women in their party.

“The Democratic caucus is rich in diversity. Democratic women have excelled in Congress — leading our efforts on the Rules, Intelligence, Small Business, House Administration committees and the Steering and Policy committee, and Democratic women play a prominent role in every committee,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) said that in the past some women in the House have been timid at the prospect of a committee chairmanship; however she contends today’s conference is full of ambitious female legislators waiting to take up the challenge.

“I do enjoy that role,” said Hart, who served in leadership as a state legislator and hopes to do so again someday in the Congress. “I’m keeping my options open.”

Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) said, “We’ll all be there at some point.” Harris will not seek reelection in the House, opting to launch a Senate bid.

“We exercise leadership everyday,” she said. “Just not from that [chairmanship] position.”

While many women do not lead committees, it does not stop them from making waves. Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) and Musgrave have broken with leadership on a few occasions and have felt the aftershock of their actions. Both frustrated GOP leaders by voting against the November 2003 Medicare drug bill.

“Each one of us elected to Congress, we are elected by our constituents, and they have expectations for us,” Musgrave said. “When I ran for office, I was very forthright about what my core principles were, what my stand was. … My district in Colorado didn’t get any surprises at all.”

She said, “There’s always in the back of your mind here, that if you are too much of an independent that you probably won’t climb the ranks of leadership so easily.”

Asked whether she thought her occasional rebellious tendencies were keeping her from a gavel, Emerson said she never wanted to work for leadership.

Musgrave described the described the decision to go against leadership as a tough position, yet one sometimes worth taking.

“It kind of feels like you are going to the principal’s office, frankly,” Musgrave said. “I think it’s easy to say no to somebody if you don’t particularly care what they think, if you don’t know how much work they put into something, but it’s very difficult to say no to someone you have high regard for and you know they are disappointed. I try to only do that when I feel that it is something that I absolutely must do.”

All of the women interviewed for this article agreed the time for women leadership in the House is not too far in the future.

Roukema said, “I think that it is coming about.”