Term limit rules targeted by Trump aren’t tipping scale on House GOP retirements

POTUS wants to discourage retirements, but life in the minority is also a factor

President Trump blamed the wave of retirements on a GOP conference rule that term limits committee chairmen. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is one member who said losing his top committee spot impacted his choice to not seek reelection. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Trump blamed the wave of retirements on a GOP conference rule that term limits committee chairmen. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is one member who said losing his top committee spot impacted his choice to not seek reelection. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 9, 2019 at 8:24pm

President Donald Trump has an idea he thinks would quell the growing list of House Republicans who say they won’t run for another term, but the president’s proposal might not get to the root of the GOP retirements.

In a tweet early Monday, Trump urged House GOP leaders to alter conference rules to allow committee chairs (and ranking members if in the minority) to hold their posts for more than six years.

“The Dems have unlimited terms. While that has its own problems, it is a better way to go. Fewer people, in the end, will leave!” he tweeted, just hours before the chamber formally returned from its summer recess.

But Republican members may be leaving Congress largely due to frustrations that come from being in the minority. Of the 12 Republican lawmakers who so far have announced plans to retire after this term, six haven’t served in the minority before.

It’s much tougher to achieve policy goals in the minority, with influence limited mostly to bipartisan legislation and amendments. And for some lawmakers, working across the aisle can be a liability with voters, depending on the issue. Seven of the recently announced retirements came from races that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as Solid Republican.

The GOP’s self-imposed limit, adopted in 1994, specifies that a Republican House member cannot lead a committee for more than six years unless they obtain a waiver from the Republican Steering Committee. Time served as chair and ranking member both count toward the six-year limit. Democrats, as Trump noted, have no such rule.

CQ Roll Call interviewed more than a half dozen Republicans about Trump’s proposal and only one expressed any openness to getting rid of the term limits. But it was a key Republican, Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney.

“We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep the very best people here and I think that’s certainly something I would be willing to look at, and I think it is important to make sure that we don’t lose people because they’re term limited out,” the Wyoming Republican said.

The other members were cool to Trump’s idea because they feel the term limits allow for advancement in their conference and new ideas to surface in committees.

Rep. Gary Palmer, who is in GOP leadership as chair of its policy committee, said he hadn’t seen Trump’s tweet but favors keeping term limits for committee leaders because it “encourages other members to work harder and earn that opportunity.”

“What the Democrats have is pretty much just based on how long you’ve been here and I’m not sure that that necessarily enhances the quality of ideas,” the Alabama Republican said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not directly address Trump’s suggestion when asked in a Fox News interview Monday how to stem GOP retirements. But the California Republican’s answer — “It’s good to have new blood” — indicates he is not looking to change conference rules to keep members around longer.

Last cycle worse

It is possible that Trump’s suggestion is in reaction to fears that term limits are contributing to a wave of senior GOP members announcing that this will be their last term. However, Republican retirements due to the term limits were an issue in the 2018 cycle.

Only five Republican committee leaders will be impacted by the term limit after the 2020 election — two of whom have announced plans to retire — compared to six for 2018.

Five of those Republicans who were not going to be able to keep their committee leadership spots without a waiver retired in 2018: Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce of California, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Science Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania.

Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, who was up against his term limit as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, found another opportunity. He ran for and won the ranking member spot on Foreign Affairs.

Five other Republican chairs who were not at the end of their terms decided to leave the House in the last cycle: Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah resigned in 2017 to pursue a punditry career; his replacement, South Carolina’s Trey Gowdy, retired; Budget Chairwoman Diane Black left for a failed campaign for governor of Tennessee; Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen retired amid concerns about holding onto his New Jersey seat; House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper also retired.

Waivers sought and granted for Republicans to serve beyond the three-term limit are rare. The last member to obtain one was former Rep. Paul D. Ryan in 2012, allowing him to serve a fourth term as top Republican on the Budget Committee. After that Ryan went on to serve briefly as Ways and Means chairman in 2015 before he was elected speaker that October.

Ryan’s replacement at Ways and Means, Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, is one of the ranking members running up against the term limit heading into 2020. While Brady won’t have served a full six years because he took over mid-term for Ryan, he would still need a waiver to serve another.

Just two of the retirements announced in recent weeks are from members facing committee term limits: Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, top Republican on the Agriculture Committee, and Utah Rep Rob Bishop, top Republican on the Natural Resources panel.

In July, both formally announced they would not seek reelection, although Bishop had said last cycle this term would be his last.

“It was a big one,” said Bishop about his term limit factoring into his decision. “I would like to stay longer, but at the same time, six years is a good run.”

With his characteristic wit, Bishop added: “We should leave before we are too tired to keep going.”

Conaway likewise said term limits were a factor in his decision. 

“In concept, it’s good for the system. Bad for me personally, but good for the system,” he said, adding: “In balance it’s good for the system to allow younger folks to keep coming up. It keeps them in the fight longer.”

In addition to Brady, there are two other Republican ranking members who will reach the term limit next year: Texas’ Mac Thornberry on the Armed Services Committee, and Ohio’s Steve Chabot on the Small Business Committee.

Chabot sought to vacate his role on Small Business this Congress to serve as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee but he lost to Georgia Rep. Doug Collins.

Chabot may have another go at the Judiciary slot if Collins is appointed to the Georgia Senate seat Johnny Isakson is vacating at the end of the year.

Positives outweigh negatives

Proponents say the negatives associated with limiting chairmen or ranking members to three terms are outweighed by the positives of keeping committees stacked with fresh faces and ideas and preventing a small group of members from consolidating power.

Former Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., announced in January 2014 he wouldn’t run for reelection. At a news conference announcing his retirement, the then-Armed Services chairman said his term limit was the “biggest motivator” of his decision.

McKeon isn’t opposed to the term limits for holding the committee gavel, but doesn’t think years as ranking member should count toward the limit.

“There’s a big difference between ranking member and chairman. I think that six years as chairman is good. I think you can get something done,” McKeon told CQ Roll Call in a phone interview Monday.

McKeon, first elected in 1993, served in Congress both before and after the term limits were put in place.

“When I came to Congress they didn’t have anything like that, and some of the chairmen had been chairman for many, many years,” said McKeon. “It just focuses too much power on one individual and precludes too many people from having the same opportunity to become a chairman.”

Over the years various members of the Democratic Caucus have proposed revisiting term limits but have faced pushback, most notably from the Congressional Black Caucus.

Most CBC members oppose term limits because they feel many black members earn their positions based on the seniority system and believe changing that would unfairly disadvantage them.

Republicans do not have the same level of diversity in their conference — their only black member, Texas Rep. Will Hurd, is among the dozen not running for reelection in 2020 — and thus do not have similar factors to consider.