House Republican Conference Rule 14(e) currently prohibits a Member from serving more than three consecutive terms as Chair or Ranking Member of a committee or subcommittee, including special, select, or ad hoc committees. However, one look at the list of retirements should be cause enough for Republicans to modify their rule. One simple tweak to entice skilled Members to stay in Congress would be to not count years while serving as Ranking Member in the minority against the 3-term limit.
As of today, 17 Republicans have announced they will leave the House at the end of this Congress. Three of them, Representatives Rob Bishop, Mike Conaway, and Mac Thornberry, are coming up on the end of their six years leading Republicans on full committees. Another two, Representatives John Shimkus of Illinois and Rob Woodall of Georgia, are in their third terms as subcommittee Chairmen.
The rule on Republican rule on chairmanships is undoubtedly a factor for some Members in their decision to retire. For instance, the Deseret News reported that, back in 2012, Representative Bishop pledged to retire once the rule hit him.
Likewise, during the last election cycle, the influential 13-term Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia sounded similar in his announcement that he’d leave the House at the end of the 115th Congress:
With my time as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee ending in December 2018, this is a natural stepping-off point and an opportunity to begin a new chapter of my career…
It’s not just that Members don’t want to see their power wane after being Chairmen of full committees. Losing a subcommittee chairmanship factors into the decision to retire as well. For instance, when Representative Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey announced that he would not run for re-election in 2018, he said:
As I am term-limited as Chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee and in my position on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, now is [an] appropriate time to leave.
To be sure, Members consider a number of factors when deciding whether to run for re-election, but as the preceding statements show, losing a chairmanship can gently nudge some of them out the door.
Developing expertise and influence in the House takes time. It is a pity for the House to lose that expertise and clout—two important elements that allow for legislation to pass. Skilled committee and subcommittee Chairmen are assets to Congress and the country, so Republicans would do well to minimize the push to retirement.
The existing rule should be modified so that in years when the party in the minority – when the Ranking Member is not an actual Chair – should not count against the six years. Being Ranking Member affords a congressman influence, particularly within their own party, but the short-term legislative benefits can be minimal. Since Chairmen control their committee’s agenda, they must be willing to work with the Ranking Members to advance any minority goals. For committees that traditionally tend to be more bipartisan, that might be doable, but good luck with the others. In no case is a ranking membership equivalent to a chairmanship, so they should not be treated like that in the House GOP rules.
Eliminating the equivalency between ranking membership and chairmanship is a modest tweak to the rule. And overall, the rule makes sense, since it guarantees that there will be turnover in leadership. The rule is like a release valve to guarantee that more junior Members have the opportunity to direct policy and exert influence. Democrats, who have never fully jettisoned the seniority system like the Republicans did in the 1980s, have long had their share of frustration over the ability for younger Members to rise in the Caucus, and late last year and earlier this year there was rumbling about the need for term limits for their committee Chairs and leadership posts. Republicans have avoided that strife, in part, due to their rule on committee chairmanships.
In addition to the rule making sense overall, it is flexible enough to allow term-limited Chairs to influence other areas of the legislative process. For instance, the Dean of the House (the Chamber’s most senior Member), Representative Don Young of Alaska was term limited out of the chairmanship of the Resources Committee (1995-2001) but immediately succeeded to that of the Transportation and Infrastructure (2001-2007). Likewise, when Representative Hal Rogers hit the term limit as Chairman of the full Appropriations Committee at the end of the 114th Congress, he then led the Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, where he is now the Ranking Member. It would be in the interest of the party leadership to find other avenues for outgoing Chairs to use their legislative experience, rather than abandoning Congress altogether.
Additionally, the rule only limits a person to chairing for three consecutive terms. In theory, a Chair could step down for a Congress and then seek re-nomination. However, that would probably be seen as a rather aggressive and even hostile move to take on one’s colleague after only two years at the helm. Still, there is no reason an experienced Chair could not serve three terms as Chair, three terms as a subcommittee Chair, and then run for the position of Chair again after his or her successor is term limited.
Persuading Ranking Members currently serving in the minority to stay is also in the interests of a party leadership seeking to gain back majority control. Not only are these key Ranking Members usually adept fundraisers for the party, but not having to deal with the vacancies created when they retire allows the party to focus on other races that could help turn all Ranking Members into Chairs and all the other benefits that come with being in the majority.
Serving as a Chair of a House committee is a position of incredible power, prestige, and influence. The GOP Conference is right to be concerned with how this power transitions from one Member to another. At the same time, they should take care to preserve institutional knowledge and legislative expertise. Not counting ranking membership against committee leadership term limits and promoting a culture where Members stay on in Congress after their chairmanships expire will help retain these valuable assets.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.