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Speaker’s committee removal powers are limited

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) fancies himself playing “The Apprentice Speaker,” barking, “You’re fired,” at Democrats he wants to remove from their committees.  Unfortunately, for him, a handful of his own party members want to fire him by defeating him for Speaker. 

Undaunted, he’s making a list and checking it twice, going to sort-out who’s naughty and nice (“Apprentice Speaker-the Christmas Show”). So far, he’s singled out three Democrats he says he will remove from committee assignments they held in the 117th Congress: California Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) from the Foreign Affairs Committee.   

McCarthy asserts that Schiff should be removed for lying about the Steele dossier on Trump’s Russia connections; Swalwell for his ties to a suspected Chinese spy;  and Omar for condemning the Israelis for “ unthinkable atrocities” in the Palestinian territories — something he labels, “antisemitic comments.”   

McCarthy’s urge to purge was prompted in 2021 by the Democrats’ barring two Republicans – Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Jim Banks (Ind.) — from serving on the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol; and by the House removal of GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.) from their committees. 

The reason House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave for not appointing Jordan and Banks to the Jan. 6 committee was that they were outspoken allies of President Donald J. Trump and his trumped-up, stolen election claims. Taylor Greene was removed from the Budget and Education and Labor committees by the House for embracing outlandish conspiracy theories and making outrageous Islamaphobic statements – all before she was elected to Congress.    

The Gosar resolution was originally introduced as a resolution of censure only for his posting on his official Twitter account a photoshopped anime video in which he appeared to be killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and attacking President Biden. The Rules Committee self-executed adoption of an amendment that also removed him from his Oversight and Reform and Natural Resources committee posts. 

Two things should be noted about the Democrats’ actions against those four Republicans. First, under House Rule I (“The Speaker”), clause 11 provides that, “The Speaker shall appoint all select, joint and conference committees ordered by the House.”  The resolution creating the Jan. 6 select committee (H. Res. 503) provided for a 13-member committee appointed by the Speaker, “five of whom shall be appointed after consultation with the minority leader.”  When Speaker Pelosi rejected the minority leader’s recommendations of Jordan and Banks, McCarthy withdrew his other three picks. Pelosi subsequently named Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinsinger (R-Ill.) to fill two of the GOP slots, neither of whom had the support of McCarthy.   

The important point is that: (a) the Speaker has sole authority to make all  appointments to select committees, including minority party members; but, (b) this is the first time in House history that a Speaker has vetoed any recommendations made by a minority leader of members to serve on any such committee. 

Secondly, the action by the House to take Reps. Taylor Greene and Gosar off their committees was done in a peculiar and wholly unprecedented fashion. Resolutions to remove Greene and censure Gosar were introduced in February and November 2021, respectively, and referred to the House Ethics Committee. They were then brought to the House floor almost immediately by special rule from the Rules Committee. The Ethics Committee was given no time to deliberate and report any findings and recommendations.     

Still, the chairman of the Ethics Committee, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), and ranking minority member, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) were responsible for managing the floor debate on the babies left on their doorstep. Walorski called the moves an unprecedented “partisan hit job” that violated the bipartisanship and comity the Ethics Committee has prided itself on over the years. The whole process recalls the Queen of Heart’s dictate  in “Alice in Wonderland”: “Sentence first — verdict afterwards.”  Only in this instance, the Ethics Committee could not even weigh-in with a verdict afterwards.  

The glaring anomaly in Jordan and Banks being barred from the Jan. 6 select committee for being unabashed Trump supporters is that members who are self-avowed anti-Trumpers were allowed to serve. Bias cuts both ways. 

McCarthy, if he is elected Speaker, has the unchallengeable right to deny Schiff and Swalwell seats on the Intelligence Committee, even though that runs counter to years of commonly accepted (and expected) practice. He does not, on the other hand, have the right, on his own, to remove Omar from the Foreign Affairs committee once she is elected to it by the House.  

McCarthy apparently learned at some point that he cannot unilaterally yank someone from a standing committee after they are elected to it by the House. He modified his macho spiel by conceding that, “a majority is going to have to approve any of those members on the committees on which they serve.” That implies, though, that the House can cast individual votes on electing members to committees. In practice, though, the election of all standing committee memberships is folded into two privileged, en bloc resolutions reported by the party caucuses. They are not divisible to permit separate votes on any individual members. The resolutions are usually adopted by voice vote. 

Yes, McCarthy as Speaker can later engineer House votes on resolutions removing anyone he wants from any standing committee, as the Democrats did twice in 2021. It is clear what is at play here is a belief that “revenge is sweet” and will bring a feeling of instant gratification. The downside to that emotion, however, is the reality that Coretta Scott King warmed of when she said, “Revenge and retaliation always perpetuate the cycle of anger, fear and violence.” That cycle needs to be broken in the House, and soon. 

Don Wolfensberger is a Congress Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 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.  

Tags Biden committee membership committee removal powers House speaker Ilhan Omar Jim Jordan Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Paul Gosar

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