Possible Senate GOP Majority Would Be Young, but Would Have Enough Elders for Heft

In a possible GOP Senate majority, Cochran is one of many veterans who could reclaim gavels. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)
In a possible GOP Senate majority, Cochran is one of many veterans who could reclaim gavels. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)
Posted July 28, 2014 at 5:00am

Conventional wisdom holds that if Republicans take the Senate, generational turnover and term limits will combine to produce a balky and potentially amateurish legislative process next year.  

That theory gets challenged by a close look at how the committee gavels are likely to be distributed if the party picks up the necessary six seats, which current race-by-race assessments reveal has become a slightly better than even-money proposition. Eight of the 20 chairmanships — including for almost all the premier policy-making panels — would be held by senators who have had such responsibility in Congress in the past.  

In other words, the committee leadership in the 114th Congress would benefit from a significant amount of expertise and seasoning, even though in the aggregate the potential new Senate Republican majority would be relatively inexperienced. (If there are 51 members of the caucus come January, the minimum needed for a takeover, only two-fifths of them will have been senators for a decade or longer.) Twenty years ago, when the GOP took back the Senate after eight years on the outs, four senators reclaimed the same gavels they’d held in the 1980s and three of the most senior guys traded up to more prestigious chairmanships. A couple of years later, they instituted complex rules limiting committee tenure that were designed to make sure the power centers would change hands every once in a while.  

Surprisingly, those term limits don’t appear to be making much of a difference. If the party returns to the majority in 2015 — coincidentally, once again after eight years in the minority — a repeat of the situation in 1995 is almost assured. Four senators would be in charge of committees in January that they also chaired in 2006. Three of the most senior senators, all of whom have done long stints wielding the gavel at prestige panels in the past, would lay claim to the corner offices at other high-profile committees.  

Utah’s Orrin G. Hatch, first elected in 1976, would become president pro tem and third in the line of presidential succession. More immediately important, he’d get to cap his career by running his third committee — Finance, which has as broad a reach as any Senate panel. (Hatch chaired what’s now called Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in the 1980s and Judiciary for eight years starting in the 1990s before term limits kicked in.)  

Iowa’s Charles E. Grassley, who has effectively reached his term limit at Finance, would get a pretty decent consolation prize as chairman of Judiciary. And Arizona’s John McCain, who ran Commerce for six years during previous GOP majorities (and also did a stint chairing Indian Affairs), would secure the Armed Services chairmanship he’s been waiting for since he joined the committee as a freshman three decades ago.  

While House Republicans limit themselves to just six years in the party’s top spot on any committee, whether in the minority or the majority, their Senate counterparts are considerably more permissive: A Republican may spend six years as a chairman and another six as the ranking minority member.  

The result is that four senators would be almost guaranteed to play an elaborate version of musical chairs so they could pick up right where they left off when their side was last in control. Thad Cochran of Mississippi has the ability to be Appropriations chairman for four more years , while there are two years remaining for Susan Collins of Maine at Homeland Security, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama at Banking and James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma at Environment and Public Works.  

In addition to all that, Pat Roberts of Kansas has a chance to make congressional history as the first member in modern times to chair companion committees on each side of the Capitol. If he wins next week’s primary in his reliably red state , which looks like a solid bet, he would have a clear path to becoming Agriculture chairman in the next GOP Senate. He chaired House Agriculture for two years in the 1990s.  

Roberts got that post after his party won the House in 1994, breaking one of the most enduring locks in American political history. Because Democrats had been in charge for 40 years, not a single Republican back then had ever experienced life in the majority — let alone held a full committee gavel. So much power being handed to so many relatively inexperienced people put significant strain on the legislative process. One consequence, which lasts to the present day, was a sharp decline in the power of House committees and the concurrent surge in the leadership’s influence over policymaking.  

So many Democrats were defeated or departed that, by the time the party won back the House a dozen years later in 2006, only three remained who had experienced a chairman’s significant power in the early 1990s. (That roster will drop to only one next year: John Conyers Jr. will remain, but fellow Michigander John D. Dingell and California’s George Miller are retiring .)  

And after the House flipped back to GOP control in the 2010 midterm, the party’s term limit rules effectively prevented any resurgence for the committee system. Eighteen of the 20 panels ended up in the hands of neophyte chairmen.  

Across the Capitol, the majority leader has long acted as main gatekeeper of access to the floor, limiting the importance of many panels. But the most senior senators never turn down an opportunity to be chairmen, because the jobs still provide ample opportunity to boost national reputations (and fundraising) by leveraging a committee’s staff, conducting televised hearings or promoting high-profile causes.  

If it’s a Republican Senate next year, seniority will dictate a largely retrograde cast of characters in those jobs. And, of course, they’ll be competing for attention against a different group of colleagues — the cluster of junior senators hoping to be president without ever making the old-school climb to the top of a committee ladder.