Race is on for prized House chairmanship

Race is on for prized House chairmanship
© Greg Nash

The race to lead one of Congress’s most influential committees is heating up.

The top job on the House Energy and Commerce Committee is likely up for grabs in the next Congress, with Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) reaching his six-year term limit with the gavel.

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The chairmanship has long been prized because it comes with sweeping jurisdiction over technology, healthcare and energy issues.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who now leads the campaign arm for House Republicans, has his eye on the job. So does Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who outranks Walden in seniority.

Both men have been reaching out to party leaders and members who serve on the Steering Committee, which will be awarding top committee jobs after the elections in November.

“I’ve talked to a few members of the Steering Committee to make sure that they understood that I do intend to pursue it,” Walden told The Hill last week.

The composition of the Steering Committee will shift somewhat after the November elections. But lawmakers seeking to chair a committee, and their aides, often have a good sense of who the decision-makers will be.

Shimkus said in a Thursday phone call that he spent much of September speaking with colleagues who might have a say in who gets the gavel.

“Yeah, I think pretty much we talked to everyone we were targeted to talk to,” he said.

The Energy and Commerce Committee’s wide jurisdiction makes its work of interest to a range of businesses, from Silicon Valley startups to coal-mining companies in Appalachia. Both Walden and Shimkus said that they have been asked about the race as they travel Washington’s fundraising circuit.

“Somebody says, ‘Well, what are you thinking, what are you going to do?’ and I just want to make sure they know with clarity that I am very interested in serving as the next chairman,” Walden said.

But Walden and Shimkus cautioned that support from K Street would only go so far.

“Whether that helps them make that decision, I think most people would say not really,” Shimkus said.

“But, you know, if you’re from a coal area, and [the National Mining Association] says, ‘You know, Shimkus has been really good. He’s been very, very helpful, and he fights the battles for us, and that’s important to us,’ might that help? It might,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Walden said his campaigning for the role has been constrained by his time-consuming work at the helm of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is fighting to maintain the Republican advantage in the House.

“I know Mr. Shimkus is actively working the steering committee and K Street and everywhere else,” Walden said. “He’s got more time to do that than I do right now, so we’ll see where that all plays out.”

One member of the Steering Committee told The Hill that Shimkus had met with him about the chairman’s race but that Walden had not, likely because Walden has been focused on his campaign work.

“That’s my first responsibility, and I think members of the [Republican] conference know that,” said Walden.

Though the two men are the primary candidates for the job, former committee Chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has also expressed an interest in running. But Barton acknowledged to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in May that he was “certainly not the leading candidate.” Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnGOP senator: 2020 candidates must recuse themselves from impeachment trial Apple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones GOP senators introduce resolution to change rules, dismiss impeachment without articles MORE (R-Tenn.) has also occasionally been mentioned as a possible chairwoman.

The contenders for the gavel are laying out cases that are equal parts politics and policy.

Shimkus points to his work shepherding an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act through the House, as well as his work on emergency communications and health screenings.

Walden draws on his time leading the tech and telecom subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce panel, and he points to his involvement in health policy in his native Oregon.

Lawmakers voting for committee chairman will also look to a candidate’s fundraising, an area Walden has an advantage.

“Obviously, I’ve been a good team player in the conference all along, taking on these responsibilities at the NRCC for the last eight years,” he said.

Shimkus argued he was in the “top tier” of his class of lawmakers when it came to fundraising for the party and helping down-ballot candidates but said there is “no way, head-to-head on the issue of political involvement, that you can cast yourself equal or above the person who helped bring the largest Republican majority since 1928.”

The Illinois Republican, however, is senior to Walden on the committee, which he hopes could make the difference in an otherwise tight race.

“It’s a hard call,” Shimkus said, while talking about his higher spot in the committee hierarchy. “It’s a call between friends. So, what tips the scale if everything else is somewhat equal?”

Walden noted Shimkus’s seniority but said the “conference has always been a meritocracy.”

Observers say they are unsure of who will emerge with the gavel.

“Shimkus seems to have had a head start and a little seniority. He’s very close to guys like [House Ways and Means Chairman] Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyTrump economic aide says new tax proposal could be unveiled this summer Hoyer: Democratic chairmen trying to bridge divide on surprise medical bills On The Money: House approves Trump USMCA deal in bipartisan vote | Senate sends .4T spending bill to Trump's desk | Why budget watchdogs are howling over the spending deal MORE [R-Texas] and [Majority Whip] Steve Scalise [R-La.]. But Walden has worked his tail off for four years on NRCC,” said the Steering Committee member who has met with Shimkus.

“Both, of course, are qualified for the job,” the lawmaker said. “So the question will be which of those narratives works out ... the hard-working plodder or the NRCC leader with all of those connections.

“I just don’t know the answer.”

Scott Wong contributed reporting.