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Chairmen Still Face Term Limits

House chairmen making long-term plans for their panels might want to check in with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The rules package she crafted for this Congress preserved the six-year term limits for committee chairmen that Republicans enacted in 1995. That decision prompted grumbling from the Democratic old bulls reclaiming their gavels at the beginning of last year. But at the time, several said they received private assurances from Pelosi that the move would soon be reconsidered.

A year and a half later, the term limits are still in place. And now, as House Democrats eye an expanded majority they hope will cement their control of the chamber for years to come, Pelosi is not signaling that the caps definitely will be lifted at the start of the next Congress, as many senior Democrats expect.

“All rules will be examined at the beginning of the 111th Congress. Anything that deals with rules, we push it into next year,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. At that time, he said, “everything will be under consideration.”

That was not the understanding offered by several chairmen, who said they believe the Speaker is set on removing the caps. “I think the Speaker’s made a commitment to some people,” Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said. “There’s no deep, dark significance to it. It was probably just something we overlooked in our rush to put together our [rules] package.”

Likewise, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said several chairmen resolved the issue with Pelosi early last year. “She’s also opposed to term limits,” he said.

Left untouched, the constraints on chairmen would strengthen Pelosi’s grip on the Caucus. Republicans adopted the term limits after their 1995 takeover in part as a reaction to the power wielded by long-serving Democratic chairmen. Two of those same Democrats — Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (Mich.) and Appropriations Chairman David Obey (Wis.) — along with several other veteran Democrats now helming committees would be sidelined at the end of the next presidential administration if the limits remain.

For the GOP, the change had the effect of centralizing power in the hands of leaders, as candidates for open chairmanships scrambled to raise money for the party and demonstrate their loyalty to party chiefs.

Some Democrats pointed to the Republican experience as an argument against keeping them in place.

For now, the issue is hardly top-of-mind. Several Democratic lawmakers said it hasn’t come up in any recent Caucus meetings, and many said they haven’t even considered it privately in months. A busy legislative calendar — and, soon, electoral demands — are taking precedence, they said.

But if Pelosi seeks to preserve term limits, it will likely set up a bruising showdown with committee chairmen, one senior Democratic leadership aide said.

“Eventually, this issue is going to have to be dealt with, and it seems odd that there’s not been any conclusion to how it will be done,” the aide said. “I think it will be a massive internal battle — of Speaker against chairmen — in order for them to stay in place.”

Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), who seemed unaware of the term limits in a recent interview, said they have “got to go,” adding he planned to have a long conversation with Pelosi about them.

The rules package that kept the Republican scheme in place was the product of a deliberative process. Under the guidance of then-Democratic Caucus Chairman James Clyburn (S.C.), Rep. Mike Capuano (Mass.) spent months in 2006 examining internal party rules as the head of the Democratic Committee on Organization, Study and Review. The study looked at the Caucus’ seniority system, guidelines for committee seats and related issues such as term limits. In September of that year, Clyburn told Roll Call that leaders were considering leaving the limits in place. Of the ultimate decision to do that, Capuano said, “I don’t believe it was an oversight.”

Nevertheless, in early January, as Democrats voted to adopt the term limits as part of a rules package that included sweeping ethics reforms, several chairmen said the move caught them off guard.

“It was Pelosi’s way of telling these chairmen, ‘I’m the one who’s going to decide whether you keep your gavel,’” one Democratic aide said.

A handful of chairmen voiced objections to Pelosi, who said she would support removing the limits through a rules change but left it to them to find support for such a fix. But in the coming weeks, as they got busy running their panels after twelve years in the minority, the chairmen let the issue drop.

If and when the debate resumes, it could split not just the most senior ranks of House Democrats but the Caucus itself along generational lines, among others. About two-thirds of the chairmen are over 60. Along with their contemporaries serving as their immediate underlings on the panels, they are the beneficiaries of a system that has hewed strictly to seniority.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), in his eighth term, said that while he favored term limits when he first came to Congress, he now opposes them. “The chairmen should stay and seniority should prevail,” he said.

On the other hand, freshman Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who said he is still mulling the issue, cited the “new energy” that younger Members have introduced into the chamber.

“It’s always a good thing to think about having fresh blood,” he said.

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.

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