GOP Frets Again Over Committee Term Limits

While their leaders have discouraged House Republicans from publicly talking about a GOP takeover in November, some senior Members are already lobbying for the party to relax its term limits for Members in top committee positions.

After the Republican takeover in 1994, the party established six-year term limits for committee chairmen, a policy that Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) said earlier this year he intends to uphold.

Only two members of the Republican Conference will reach their term limits this year, but others with a term or two as ranking members under their belts who sense the GOP could return to power soon also have an interest in seeing the rule changed.

Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he is in favor of granting term limit waivers under special circumstances.

While the California Republican has another four years before he would be term-limited, he said he would want to have the opportunity to make the case for a waiver to extend his tenure.

“I side with John Boehner’s approach. This should be a broad decision of the Conference, where a waiver is applied for and is considered to be meritorious for specific reasons,” Issa said. “If in four years I made an application, I would at least want to be able to be considered. But acceptance should be rare.”

Issa suggested that a Member who has had only a ranking member position should have a chance to extend his tenure once becoming chairman.

Members concerned about obtaining waivers have already started charm offensives to secure votes on the House Republican Steering Committee.

Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), a member of the Steering Committee, said that while leadership hasn’t had any recent conversations about how they will deal with waivers next Congress, several Members have individually approached her.

“People start thinking seriously about opportunities to get on the ‘A’ committee or to change committees, and they are talking to members and it’s important that they do,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Still, McMorris Rodgers said she is waiting to support individual Members until after the elections.

Other rank-and-file Members, such as Rep. Jeff Flake, say the party should avoid waivers.

“As a general rule, we ought to stick with the program,” the Arizona Republican said. “But we’ve already granted waivers in the past, so it’s inconsistent now to say no. I think it should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.”

The internal discussion over the term limit rule is not new.

The rule, implemented under the “Contract With America” in 1995 partially as a reaction to the power wielded by long-serving Democratic chairmen, has long been unpopular with some Members.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) offered a proposal to remove the six-year limits in 2000, the first year the term restrictions applied.

Her amendment was defeated by the Republican Conference on a 141-27 vote.

One Member said that if the issue of term limits is not opened up for debate within the Conference, it will come up year after year.

“It’s something that we have to resolve in our Conference,” the Member said. “We institute these six-year terms and it’s fine if you are always in the majority and nobody’s in the minority.”

The Member said when power switches back and forth between the parties, it could leave some Members short-changed.

“So you are chairman for two years and ranking member for four years. Is that a six-year term limit?” the Member asked. “That’s not fair.”

Boehner sought to stifle the perennial debate during a closed-door Conference meeting in February.

Boehner told Members the policy would stay in place, advising them to “plan accordingly,” according to GOP sources at the meeting.

A GOP leadership aide confirmed that Boehner’s position on the rule had not changed.

“There are no plans to change the rule, and it will be enforced,” the aide said. “The rule has always provided for the Steering Committee to grant a waiver, but only in extraordinary circumstances.”

While there are several reasons leaders would leave open the possibility of waivers, Republican sources said fundraising is a big factor because Members are more inclined to raise money and work harder for the party if there is a competition for a plum position.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.) will come to the end of his six-year term as top Republican on the Appropriations Committee this year, but he has not publicly said whether he will seek a waiver to stay in the seat in the 112th Congress. However, several Members and staff have speculated that Lewis’ endorsement of the yearlong earmark moratorium was a signal that he intends to make a play for an extension.

A spokeswoman for Lewis declined to comment.

Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), who also reaches his term limit this year as the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, has taken a different approach and is actively seeking support for a waiver to return next year.

Since at least August, Barton has been telling lobbyists that he will be the next chairman, according to several K Streeters.

Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman for Barton, confirmed that her boss plans to run for the chairmanship.

Barton has served as the top Republican on the committee since early 2004, when he replaced retiring Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), but the challenge he may face in seeking a waiver goes beyond the fact that his tenure is up.

A Republican lobbyist who handles issues before Barton’s committee said he thought it was an “uphill battle” at best for Barton to continue at the helm of the energy panel given his dismal performance during the BP oil spill.

“He feels strongly that he should and will get a waiver,” said one lobbyist who handles energy issues. “I think most people roll their eyes.”

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