Skip to content

Does Removal of Term Limits Portend Revival of Committee System?

One of the changes made in the new House rules adopted last month was the abolition of term limits for committee and subcommittee chairmen. Republicans had instituted the six-year limits when they took control of Congress in 1995. The rationale was that the veteran chairmen became too closely associated with the agencies and private entities that they were supposed to oversee. Republicans vowed to break that “iron triangle” to ensure that committees were accountable first and foremost to Congress and the American people.

[IMGCAP(1)]Republicans characterized last month’s elimination of term limits as a backward step that would lead to the same cozy relationships that previously existed under Democratic majorities. The Democrats, on the other hand, pointed out that much had changed since the old days of independent committee barons and that committees are now firmly under the control of the majority party leadership and caucus.

So, which side is right? At the risk of sounding ambivalent, let me suggest that both arguments are correct. Chairmen will certainly have more stability, longevity and control over their committees than was the case when their senior colleagues were constantly vying to succeed them. Moreover, chairmen will also have greater clout with their private-sector allies in being able to meet their legislative needs and, in return, raise campaign funds from them. (Banning leadership political action committees — something every Member seems to have nowadays — would be a refreshing antidote to this troubling practice.)

On the other hand, the majority leadership is correct that the relationship between leaders and chairmen has changed dramatically over the past four decades, and there is no going back to the days of committee government. Unless the majority caucus revolts against its elected leaders for overreaching, it is unlikely that chairmen will defy their leadership and assert independence from their party’s programs.

Keep in mind that even without term limits, chairmen are not assured of retaining their gavels by virtue of seniority, as was once the case. Since the 1970s, caucus rules have provided for separate votes on chairmanships. Moreover, the party’s committee on committees can ignore seniority and recommend a less senior member for chairman (as happened with the Energy and Commerce Committee this year).

The leadership also retains complete control over the House Rules Committee and can (and has) used it to alter reported bills in which a chairman has deviated from the party line. The device used is called a self-executing rule, in which the leadership instructs the Rules Committee to make certain changes in the reported bill that are automatically adopted when the House adopts the special rule. As one political scientist has euphemistically described this process, the leadership is making certain “post-committee adjustments.”

The leadership has also been known to work around recalcitrant chairmen by bringing up unreported bills through the Rules Committee, or by circumventing House-Senate conferences and dictating the terms of the final amendments between the chambers. All of these arrows, and more, remain in the leadership quiver to shoot down chairmen who try to fly solo.

One of the things that the leadership and party will gain by eliminating term limits is some peace of mind. Committees are bound to be more internally cooperative, cohesive and effective with a lessening of political infighting. That is not to say Members will stop trying, by their fundraising prowess, to impress their leaders and colleagues that they are budding chairs-apparent. This is especially evident in the competition within committees for subcommittee gavels, which are subject to an internal bidding process. While the bids do not involve explicit offers of campaign support, the more generous Members have been rewarded on occasion with a desired subcommittee chairmanship.

The leadership will also gain peace of mind from not having to interview and reinterview a whole passel of candidates for committee chairmanships every six years. When Republicans were in the majority, this was jokingly referred to as “the beauty contest,” where two, three or more members of each committee with an expiring chairmanship would parade before the selection committee, bestow some home-district product (like pistachio nuts) and explain how they would achieve world peace and party prosperity if allowed to head their respective committees. It had to be a grueling ordeal.

Will the change restore the committee system to a more deliberative process? Don’t count on it so long as party leaders continue to call the major legislative shots. Attempts to reach across the aisle and bring out more bipartisan products will continue to be discouraged except on the most inconsequential of bills. Members will continue to favor the three-day workweeks that make it virtually impossible for committees to do a conscientious job of legislating or oversight. Tending to the home districts and raising campaign cash will continue to receive greater attention from Members than committee work.

The Republicans’ complaint that the abolition of committee chairmanship term limits is a backward step has not gained much traction, in part because the GOP had already abolished the term limits that they had earlier imposed on their own Speaker and Rules chairman. The cause does not have the same public appeal that it did back in 1992 and 1994, perhaps because people have seen what a disaster term limits have been in state legislatures. Experience still counts for a lot, and we will need plenty of it to overcome our current economic and financial woes.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

Recent Stories

Strange things are afoot at the Capitol

Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024

Getting down on the Senate floor — Congressional Hits and Misses

US-China tech race will determine values that shape the future

What’s at stake in Texas runoff elections on Tuesday

Democrats decry ‘very, very harmful’ riders in Legislative Branch bill