Rep. Barton consolidates grip on power

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has told his committee members that he would grant waivers to serve on other panels on a case-by-case basis, angering some of those lawmakers.

At the same time, Barton is angling to chair a key subcommittee, seeking to consolidate his power at the committee’s helm much as Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), now the ranking member, did when he was both committee chairman and a subcommittee chairman in the 1980s and 1990s. Aides said that Barton does not want to repeat Rep. Billy Tauzin’s (R-La.) experience as chairman when committee lawmakers opposed him on healthcare and energy issues.
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Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)

Moreover, Barton’s ability to grant waivers allows him to hold even more sway over potentially wayward members and perhaps to retaliate against some lawmakers who opposed the DeLay Rule in the conference rules package.

Until last week, the Republican Steering Committee had the sole authority to hand out waivers to serve on multiple committees. Because of a change in the GOP House rules package, lawmakers who want to serve on an A-list committee and another committee now must get permission from the chairmen of both committees, as well as from the Steering Committee. A senior GOP aide said the rule was put in place to allow younger members who don’t serve on A-list committees to move up on the authorizing committees.

Last Saturday, Barton informed his committee members that he would not grant waivers to allow them to serve on another committee besides Energy and Commerce, which is considered an A-list committee. Barton’s move would have affected 16 lawmakers who currently serve on another committee.

Some lawmakers walked out of the meeting visibly upset and angry, according to aides who had been called to attend the meeting but denied entry. Lawmakers debriefed staffers after the meeting.

“Barton may have lit a fuse here, but a powder keg may have blown up in his face,” an aide to a Republican committee member said.

A GOP committee lawmaker said that Barton “feels like a much higher scrutiny on the waivers is necessary. … Over time, an attrition of waivers would be the best for the committee” but added that lawmakers’ waivers to serve on Financial Services would be granted again because of jurisdiction issues.

As a consolation, aides to some lawmakers said, Barton has agreed to consider their waiver requests on a case-by-case basis. GOP lawmakers must submit letters with both chairmen’s signatures the first week of December. Reps. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) are among those seeking waivers.

Meantime, Barton has told colleagues he will seek a waiver from the Steering Committee so that he, as Dingell did, can chair the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. That subcommittee has led some of the highest-profile investigations and hearings into corporate malfeasance.

Aides and lobbyists said that Barton also is seeking to stop Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who has announced that he will retire at the end of the 109th Congress, from becoming chairman of the Health Subcommittee. Moreover, Barton would like to elevate Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) to become chairman of the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee.

Meanwhile, another senior aide said that House leaders would like to shove aside Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, and replace him with Bilirakis. Smith has been criticized for favoring too much spending.

Barton’s moves come days after Republican committee chairmen thwarted House leaders and the White House on intelligence reform. Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) opposed the compromise reached on a measure favored by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and President Bush.

Ironically, the empowerment of the committee chairmen comes at a time when House leaders are demanding that the next Appropriations Committee chairman be more compliant to leadership’s wishes.

By allowing chairmen to grant waivers, House leaders have relinquished a crucial tool to curry favor with lawmakers.