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House Democrats reject committee term limit proposal

Plan would have set six-year cap on being chair or ranking member

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., leaves the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the Capitol ion Nov. 15.
Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., leaves the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the Capitol ion Nov. 15. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats on Tuesday rejected an effort to limit how long their committee leaders can serve without a waiver from the entire caucus. 

The Democratic Caucus voted 138-63 to defeat an amendment from Illinois Rep. Bill Foster to set a six-year term limit for committee leaders, counting time served as chair and ranking member together.

The amendment to party rules would have been similar to term limits House Republicans impose. The GOP rule also applies to subcommittee leaders, while Foster’s proposal would not have. 

Democrats have debated in recent Congresses whether to adopt term limits for their committee leaders but Tuesday was the first time one of those debates led to an actual caucus vote. 

“These are important discussions to continue going forward,” Foster said after the vote.

Similar to Republicans’ rule, Foster’s amendment would have allowed Democrats to serve longer than six years if they get a waiver. But instead of the party’s Steering Committee making that call, as the GOP rule stipulates, the Foster proposal would give the full Democratic Caucus a vote on requested waivers. 

Because of the waiver provision, Foster pitched his amendment as a “retention vote” rather than a term limit. 

“I think one of the most impactful results of this proposal, if it’s passed, is that the committee staff would understand that their jobs depended on their boss passing a retention vote,” he said in a recent interview. “And so that they would, I believe, be much more responsive to rank-and-file members than they currently might be in some cases.”

Foster did not whip support for the amendment, given that it was a secret-ballot vote, but had said he was getting a lot of support from “unexpected quarters” of the caucus.

‘No real fix’

But the vote Tuesday didn’t go Foster’s way. 

“The testimony that I’ve heard from most in there is that if something’s not broke, you don’t need to fix it,” Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., said leaving the caucus meeting. “We have accountability and transparency now. Every two years a chair has to go and be approved by the Steering Committee and then the full [caucus]. So therefore, there is no real fix here, because nothing is broken.”

Meeks has only been committee chair for two years, so Foster’s amendment would not have immediately affected him if it had been adopted. But a majority of House Democratic committee chairs have served for six or more years, including Richard E. Neal on Ways and Means, Frank Pallone Jr. on Energy and Commerce, Maxine Waters on Financial Services, Adam Smith on Armed Services, Robert C. Scott on Education and Labor and Bennie Thompson on Homeland Security. 

Scott said Tuesday that caucus rules already allow members to vote against reappointing committee leaders if they wish. Meeks agreed that most Democrats are satisfied with that mechanism, even though most committee leaders are reelected each term by unanimous consent. 

“If the chair was not representing the committee and the wishes of the other members of the caucus, they can always be voted out,” Meeks said.

Others agreed the current rules are sufficient. “I believe that if you want to run to challenge the chair, then you run,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky said.

The Illinois Democrat said there were also “technical problems” with the amendment, like that it would count time served as ranking member toward the six-year limit.

“That’s really different than being a chairman of a committee,” Schakowsky said.

Foster said he made many arguments for the proposal, including that the waiver provision provided “a compromise that allowed members to serve indefinitely.”

The biggest thing he said some Democrats didn’t seem to appreciate is that the members who are held back by the current system are the younger, more diverse members and that his amendment would have given those members earlier opportunities to serve in committee leadership positions. 

“It’s important that the committee chairs represent the Democratic Caucus and the American people,” Foster said. “And a number of the rules that we’ve had in place for a long time skew the characteristics of our committee chairs in a way that makes it harder and harder for us sometimes to win elections.” 

But Meeks said members argued during the closed caucus debate that the current rules have already allowed more junior and diverse members to rise as leaders. He said Democrats now have “the most diverse chairmanships in the history of the United States Congress.” 

Other rule votes

House Democrats also voted to reject two other amendments to their caucus rules. 

One from Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. would have implemented ranked choice voting for leadership elections. 

The other, from Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., would have required committee chairs to mark up bills co-sponsored by the majority of Democrats, and leadership to bring bills cosponsored by two-thirds or more Democrats to the floor. 

It would not have been enforceable in the next Congress with Republicans set to be in the majority and thus in control of committees and the floor. 

Larson had pitched the amendment as a forward-looking change that acknowledges “government should be about the vitality of ideas.” 

He said in a recent interview that the proposal was motivated at least in part by a leadership decision not to take up his bill to expand Social Security benefits and shore up the program’s finances. That bill, which is co-sponsored by 202 Democrats, would have met both thresholds to be marked up and brought to the floor under his proposed rule. 

Larson, who chairs the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, said a committee markup was planned but that Democratic leadership pulled the plug.

“And I’ve never received a full explanation other than some of the staff in leadership saying, ‘Well, we’re not sure it has the votes. There are still other people that are skeptical,'” he said.

Meeks said the argument against Larson’s amendment “is that the leadership and committee chairs and others, sometimes they have to have some discretion in looking at issues that are important that may not be under consideration by some others.”

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