What's a party caucus chair worth?
© Greg Nash

On Wednesday, the House Republican Conference, by voice vote, evicted from office its chair, Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyLiz Cheney hired security after death threats: report Cheney: 'It is disgusting and despicable' to see Gosar 'lie' about Jan. 6 GOP's Stefanik defends Trump DOJ secret subpoenas MORE (Wyo.), for the crime of lacking fealty to former President Donald J. Trump. Cheney has repeatedly charged Trump with propagating an Orwellian “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by the Democrats.

Political pundits are scratching their heads over what the removal of the third-ranking GOP leader means for the party going forward as well as for the office itself. Washington Post Capitol Hill correspondent Paul Kane writes that party caucus chairmanships historically have either been political career-enders, a broken wrung in the leadership ladder, or innovative attempts to reinvent resumes for other offices.

No Republican conference chairman, Kane says, has directly ascended in leadership ranks in recent times since Rep. Dick Armey (Texas) rose to majority leader more than 26 years ago. And no Democratic caucus chair during that period, except Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), has moved-up directly from party caucus chair to whip. Other Democratic caucus chairs prior to that who rose to being party leader, or even Speaker, include Reps. Tom Foley (Wash.), Richard Gephardt (Mo.), and Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBiden signs Juneteenth bill: 'Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments' House passes political spending, climate change corporate disclosures bill House to vote Wednesday on making Juneteenth a federal holiday MORE (Md.).

ADVERTISEMENT

To be sure, there have been plenty of caucus chairs of both parties who were not dead-ended politically. Kane cites three such instances in recent times: Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE (R-Ohio), who later went on to be Speaker; Rep. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceIf you care about the US, root for China to score a win in space Pence heckled with calls of 'traitor' at conservative conference The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay MORE (R-Ind.), who later became governor of his state and then vice president; and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill), who went on to be White House chief of staff and then mayor of Chicago.

No one can explain, says Kane, why both parties place so little value in this leadership post. True, there is scant public recognition, let alone admiration, for someone whose claim to fame is being the No. 3 (or, if in the majority, fourth) ranking member in House party leadership. For one thing, there is no public spotlight on someone who presides over weekly closed party meetings. And, even if there was, there is little glamor associated with trying to maintain order in an often raucous caucus.

Party caucus meetings in the House are understandably closed to the press and public because they are designed to allow members to thrash-out their differences in relative privacy, and then, hopefully, to emerge before the cameras projecting some semblance of unity. Put simply, being party caucus chair is a thankless task of presiding over often heated, and sometimes personal, intraparty squabbles.

Perhaps one saving grace is that the chairs get to appear with their co-leaders in post-caucus press conferences to put the best face on what transpired inside. One of the principal roles of a party caucus chair is communications and messaging —explaining to the press and public what the party stands for that day.

So much of party politics nowadays revolves around messaging aimed at winning control of Congress at the next election. What image of a party is it that the public takes away from the policy and P.R. pronouncements the parties advance almost daily? Truth be told, the general public pays little if any attention to such inside-the-beltway preening and posturing.

ADVERTISEMENT

As someone who began his career on the Hill with Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.) in January 1969, just after he was first was elected GOP conference chair, I had a ringside seat during his five-term tenure in that position. Yes, he ended-up running for president as an independent in 1980 after falling short in the GOP primaries. But he did leave a mark by his incredible run.

I also think of some of his Republican predecessors and successors as conference chairs: Rep. Gerald R. Ford (Mich.) skipped a wrung in the leadership ladder after one term as conference chair (1963-64) when he leapfrogged longtime Whip Les Arends (Ill.) to serve five terms as House Republican leader. He went on to be elected by Congress as vice president after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973, followed by his elevation to the presidency in 1974 when President Richard M. Nixon resigned in the face of imminent impeachment.

Other conference chairs who found higher political fortunes elsewhere include:  Rep. Mel Laird (R-Wis.), who succeeded Ford as GOP Conference chair for two terms (1965-68), and was then confirmed as secretary of Defense in 1969; and, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who was conference chair for four terms (1981-87) before being confirmed as the secretary of HUD under President George H.W. Bush (and was subsequently tapped by Sen. Bob Dole as his vice-presidential running-mate in 1996).

So, being a House caucus chair is not the dead-end post some would make it out to be; but neither is it a sure ticket to the next wrung on the leadership ladder. I have concluded that those who were smart and motivated enough to earn the respect and support from their colleagues to be elected chairs in the first place usually have enough gas left in the tank to embark on journeys to challenging new destinations.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.