Retirements shine spotlight on GOP term limits for chairs

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Jeb Hensarling Lamar Smith

The surprise retirements of several veteran Republicans are reigniting a debate about the GOP’s self-imposed term limits for committee chairs.

Some argue that term limits create a brain drain in Congress, with the most experienced committee leaders more inclined to head for the exits once they’re done holding a gavel.

But while many Republicans acknowledge the potential downsides to limiting chairmanships, they maintain that it’s far better than the alternative facing their Democratic colleagues: frustration about not being able to rise in the ranks.

{mosads}“You can certainly make the argument about keeping people around longer, about the value of institutional knowledge,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, told The Hill. 

“But the reality is, for most of our members, they’re willing to run those kinds of risks in order to have the potential for upward mobility.”

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) each announced last week that they would not seek reelection in 2018. Both cited their expiring committee posts as one reason for their exit.

Other high-ranking Republicans preceded them, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), another House Appropriations subcommittee chairman, who both opted against running in 2018.

The departures are putting the spotlight on GOP rules that limit committee leaders to three consecutive terms and are raising speculation about the plans of other chairs entering their sixth year.

The term-limit policy, put in place by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1994, was designed to keep the party from growing stale by regularly injecting new blood and fresh ideas into the mix.

The term limits have offered an opportunity for younger members to climb the leadership ladder far more quickly than if the rules weren’t in place.

“Most of us who have been a committee chair would not have been committee chairman” without term limits, Smith told The Hill.

Former Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who once led the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, noted that his predecessors had to wait decades to get a shot at the gavel.

“I was lucky. I moved up the chain pretty quickly,” Mica said.

Lawmakers can get a waiver from the rules, though they are rarely granted. The thinking is that if a chairman can’t achieve major policy goals within six years, then it’s time to let someone else give it a try.

But there is some serious concern about the impact that the policy is having at the highest level, and whether the term limits are forcing seasoned experts to leave Congress early if they don’t have a clear path to another chairmanship.

Lawmakers may be reluctant to go from the front lines to the backbench. Chairmen get to attend weekly leadership meetings, have influence over major policy debates and maintain both a personal and committee staff.

“You get used to having real power,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and president of Potomac Strategy Group. “So then to go back to being just another senior member of a committee, that can be a real shock to the system.”

Some believe that the constant reshuffling of committees and high turnover rates can make panels less effective, shifting the balance of power toward staff and lobbyists. And six years may not always be enough time to deliver major achievements, especially given the congressional gridlock that has plagued Washington in recent years. 

But Republicans are quick to point to the flip side, where Democrats do not have a similar rule in place.

Discontent has been brewing among rank-and-file Democrats, who have been unable to crack the leadership ranks and feel shut out of important decisionmaking. The frustration in the caucus, and concern about the future of the party, has only grown since last year’s Election Day drubbing.

“If you don’t have term limits, people stay forever. That’s what you’re seeing on the Democratic side,” Mackowiak said. “They don’t give the young and up-and-coming members that same leadership opportunities. There’s nowhere to go.”

There have been some past efforts by Democrats to impose term limits on committee leaders, but powerful groups like the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have remained opposed to the idea, arguing that seniority is the best way to ensure that their members can move up in the ranks. 

A number of CBC members are top-ranking Democrats on a host of powerful committees, and the group is worried that changes on term limits would disproportionately hurt its members.

“There are arguments to be made for both of these systems. That’s something that each side has to hash out for themselves,” Cole said. “But I think our system is far superior.” 

Republicans also say that there are plenty of capable lawmakers willing to step up to the plate after a committee leader steps aside. 

“You do lose a lot of institutional knowledge, but no one in Congress is irreplaceable,” Mica said. “All of the name plates come out with a screw driver and can be changed almost overnight.”

For now, it seems that the GOP is happy to keep the rules in place.

“Every time this has been discussed in conference or put up for a vote, it wins,” Cole said.

There could also be other factors at play with the drove of Republican retirements.

Consultants say that it’s common for members in the majority to cash out while they’re still at the top of their game and head to K Street, in an effort to maximize their financial gain and professional opportunities. 

And even though Republicans control Washington, there is a sense of political uncertainty in the age of President Trump — especially for more moderate Republicans like Dent.  

Whether more Republicans retire — and whether Democrats take back the House next year — may depend on whether the GOP can deliver on tax reform and other conservative priorities.

“There’s some real uncertainty about the political environment for Republicans right now,” Mackowiak said. 

Tags Bob Corker Charlie Dent Jeb Hensarling Tom Cole
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