Hall’s Defection Sparks Scramble for Committees

Posted January 9, 2004 at 6:07pm

Next year’s round of committee assignments is a year away, but the jockeying for key openings within the House Democratic Caucus has already begun.

The lobbying for plum positions in the 109th Congress kicked off in earnest last week after veteran Rep. Ralph Hall (Texas) defected from the Democratic Party to join the GOP. Hall’s switch sent wanting Members scrambling for his seat on the exclusive Energy and Commerce Committee and his ranking job on Science. It also prompted Democrats to begin looking a year out, weighing the potential vacancies created from retirements, re-redistricting and re-elections.

“The news of the party switch has clearly resulted in a feeding frenzy among Members,” said one well-placed Democratic staffer.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) quickly recommended to the Steering and Policy Committee replacements for Hall’s posts, giving Texas Rep. Charlie Gonzalez the Energy opening and advancing the next senior Science Committee member, Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon. Gonzalez was in line for Energy last year but was passed over.

“Sure, the lobbying will begin soon,” acknowledged one Democratic leadership aide, adding that Pelosi will begin the decision-making once she sees “what the landscape is” and what seats are in play.

There’s also a possibility that Democrats could lose committee seats if the GOP gains a significant number of seats on Election Day and committee ratios change.

Assuming ratios don’t change, at least two Energy and Commerce Committee slots will be available after the 2004 elections with the departure of retiring Rep. Karen McCarthy (Mo.) and Rep. Peter Deutsch (Fla.), who is running for Senate. Other openings are possible if Gordon agrees to take a leave from the committee and if Rep. Chris John (La.) takes an expected crack at the Louisiana Senate.

Progressive Reps. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Jay Inslee (Wash.) and moderate Reps. Jim Matheson (Utah) and Dennis Moore (Kan.) all have expressed interest in the next vacancy on Energy.

Matheson said Friday he’s always had an interest in serving on Energy and Commerce, noting that he would be a natural fit given his background in the energy industry. He said that while he “doesn’t have an eight-point plan” ready to try to get on the panel, he “will have conversations with many people in the Caucus and let them know I have an interest.”

Moore said he too would welcome an opportunity to serve on the committee.

“I’d be interested if there are in fact three openings at the end of year,” he said. “I’d be interested in taking a look and I would talk to our leader, Nancy Pelosi,” about it.

Beyond traditional lobbying, Members vying for committee posts often try to prove their worth in fundraising, for both the party and their colleagues. Giving money to Democrats has become even more important under the new campaign finance law, which has left the party bank accounts lagging significantly behind the GOP.

Energy and Commerce is showing the most potential vacancies so far, but other positions could open as well. Texas Rep. Jim Turner, ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, announced plans last week to retire, leaving his position available. Democratic leadership aides indicate Pelosi is likely to advance the No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), to the post.

Vacancies also could spring open for Democrats in 2005 on Rules, Ways and Means and Appropriations if the Texas redistricting map holds, possibly whittling down the state’s Democratic delegation. Reps. Martin Frost, ranking member on Rules, Max Sandlin, a Ways and Means member, and Chet Edwards, an appropriator, are all vulnerable under the new map.

On the Republican side, Hall’s party switch, coupled with Rep. Doug Bereuter’s (R-Neb.) retirement announcement, makes possible a multitude of seat-shuffling scenarios that could affect three different committees this Congress.

Hall’s office has said the Texan was told by Republican leaders that his seniority would be honored, but that no promises were made about whether he would remain on Energy and Commerce and Science.

“He certainly would be interested in the committees where he had been sitting, but those issues have not yet been resolved,” said Hall spokeswoman Janet Poppleton.

On Energy and Commerce, Hall could take the GOP slot recently vacated by ex-Rep. Ernie Fletcher, who was elected governor of Kentucky in November.

That seat has already been promised to Oklahoma Rep. John Sullivan (R), who has been at the top of the Energy and Commerce waiting list for three years. If, as many House Republicans expect, panel Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) leaves the House to take a lobbying job, then either Hall or Sullivan could take his slot.

For now, a final decision on Energy and Commerce will have to wait until the House returns to session Jan. 20.

“No decision on [Hall’s] status will be made until the leadership and the steering committee meet later this month,” said Energy and Commerce spokesman Ken Johnson. “I expect he will remain on our committee and will retain his seniority.”

On the Science Committee, where Hall had been ranking member and where there is already a vacant Republican seat, the Texas lawmaker would have the most seniority of any member. Chairman Sherwood Boehlert’s (R-N.Y.) gavel tenure extends through 2006.

With Bereuter, the previous heir apparent at Intelligence, retiring, Boehlert could also make a play to take over the Intelligence Committee in the 109th Congress. GOP Reps. Ray LaHood (Ill.) and Jim Gibbons (Nev.) have already expressed interest in the post, but Boehlert so far has given no indication that he intends to pursue it.

“Mr. Boehlert is interested in continuing with the Science Committee chairmanship into his last term” with the gavel, said Boehlert spokeswoman Heidi Tringe.

As the Republicans work through their openings in the immediate term, Pelosi will have some time to decide how to play her power chips in the coming months. Sources close to the leader say she will consider the diversity of the committees, vulnerability of Members and loyalists when deciding whom to recommend to future openings.

“It’s a way to reward Members who have taken a tough vote, and those who have been loyal to her,” said one senior Democratic aide.

Throughout the Caucus, however, concerns continue that the Minority Leader will not put enough weight on Members facing tough re-elections. Giving threatened lawmakers key slots helps improve their standings at home and gives them incentives to continue to run for re-election.

“You’ve got to help your threatened Members by putting them on good committees,” said another senior Democratic staffer, saying that Pelosi should take a “more balanced approach” in 2005 to committee assignments.

That aide suggested that while Pelosi certainly holds tremendous power to decide who gets on key committees, her recommendations are unlikely to drastically change Caucus loyalties.

“Dick Gephardt was the Minority Leader for 10 years and he didn’t translate the political power with committee assignments into much loyalty and support,” the staffer said.