With Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (Va.) six-year stint as the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee set to expire at the end of next year, House Republicans may face another test of a contentious Conference rule governing term limits for panel chairmen and ranking members.
After punting on the issue at the end of the previous Congress, GOP leaders have yet to revisit the effort to clarify the rule governing committee chairmanship term limits and whether time spent in the minority as ranking members should be counted against them.
Goodlatte became chairman of the Agriculture panel in January 2003, after the resignation announcement of then-Chairman Larry Combest (R-Texas). January 2009 will mark the end of his six-year term — four years of which he will have spent as chairman and two as ranking member.
Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), who was passed over for the chairmanship last time and is in line behind Goodlatte, is retiring. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is next in seniority on the panel and has indicated he will seek the GOP’s top slot whenever it is available.
“When the position comes open of course I would be interested,” Lucas said last week. But in an example of the confusion the current term-limit rule has sown, he also indicated he was unclear about when that time would be.
Lucas has stated previously that he wants to stay in Congress long enough to become Agriculture chairman.
Behind Lucas on the committee roster is Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), and the two men are good friends. Lucas has almost two and a half years’ seniority on the panel over Moran. He was elected in a May 1994 special election, while Moran was elected in 1996.
“I would be honored to serve as the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee,” Moran said in a statement. “However, the Committee would also be in good hands through the leadership of my friend, Congressman Lucas.”
A committee spokeswoman for Goodlatte said he is operating under the assumption that he will have to turn over the top slot on the committee at the start of the next Congress.
The “term limitation” section of Conference Rule 14 reads: “No individual shall serve more than three consecutive terms as chairman or ranking member of a standing, select, joint or ad hoc committee or subcommittee.” The rule was implemented at the start of the 104th Congress — just after Republicans had gained control of the chamber — and has not been modified since.
The traditional interpretation of the rule has been that there is a six-year limit on serving as the top Republican on a committee, period — either as chairman or ranking member.
A Conference spokesman stood by the standard interpretation.
“The rule speaks for itself,” said Republican Conference spokesman Ed Patru. “The language is unambiguous.”
Conference rules are revisited before the start of each Congress.
At the end of the previous Congress, three outgoing chairmen — GOP Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Don Manzullo (Ill.) — sought to continue their service as ranking members in the 110th Congress, arguing that the rule should allow six years of service as chairman and another six as ranking member.
Republican leaders shot down that interpretation and all three men were forced to relinquish the top GOP spot on their respective committees. But at the same time the Conference passed up the opportunity to clarify the term-limits issue, and then-incoming Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) said in December that the Conference would examine the current rule and address it more formally this year.
The rule change, offered in December by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.), sought to make clear that a Republican who serves six years as a chairman would not be eligible to serve a subsequent six-year term as ranking member. However, if a Member has served only six years as ranking member, it would not affect his or her ability to subsequently serve a full term as a chairman in the majority.
A GOP leadership aide said the issue is a low priority and likely won’t be considered again until the Conference meets to consider rules changes after the 2008 elections.
“Everybody in this Conference is focused on earning back the majority,” the aide said.