As House Republicans begin to debate changes to their internal rules this week, addressing waivers for committee chairmen — a flash point within the Conference — could already be off the table.
Republicans have not dealt with the festering issue during their reorganizations in the previous two Congresses when they were in the minority. Now that the GOP is preparing to assume the majority, leaders still don’t appear to be willing to make changes to the rules, at least not in the short term.
“In general, rules are not made to be broken,” one GOP aide said. “It is up to the Conference to decide the rules for the 112th Congress, and the Steering Committee — once constituted — to decide on chairmen and committee assignments for the 112th Congress.”
The aide said the Steering Committee would continue to grant waivers on a case-by-case basis.
Reps. Joe Barton (Texas) and Jerry Lewis (Calif.) are publicly lobbying to obtain waivers for the 112th Congress in order to lead the Energy and Commerce and Appropriations panels, respectively. However, several Members expected to chair powerful committees will need waivers to retain their gavels after the next Congress, which could force leadership to address the currently ambiguous rule at the end of 2012.
House Republicans must obtain a waiver from the GOP Steering Committee to serve as ranking member or chairman for more than three consecutive Congresses. But some Members contend that the rule needs clarification since the duties of a ranking member pale in comparison to those of a chairman.
Reps. Lamar Smith (Texas), John Mica (Fla.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.), presumptive chairmen of the Judiciary, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Budget committees, will all need waivers in two years if they want to continue in those posts.
Rep. Spencer Bachus (Ala.), who has served as the top Republican on Financial Services since 2006, will also need a waiver at the end of the next Congress if he is successful in his bid for chairman.
Bachus said he believes the waiver issue will eventually be dealt with. But he declined to discuss how and when the Conference should take up the issue. “I think that’s up to leadership,” Bachus said.
Presumptive Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Members earlier this year the term-limit rule was unlikely to change in the current Congress.
One GOP lawmaker said the waiver issue is a frequent topic among Republicans on the floor but that no one is sure what route the Steering Committee will eventually take.
The Member said he supports the idea of term limits but there is an undeniable disparity between a ranking-member position and a chairmanship.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) predicted the Steering Committee would take up the issue of waivers when Congress returns from the Thanksgiving holiday.
“I don’t think they’ll change the rule for this term of appointing people to chairmen,” Simpson, a member of the Steering Committee for the 111th Congress, said. “They may grant waivers, but ultimately we have to look at this issue and I think it is something that Conference will take up later on in the year so two years from now we won’t have the same” debate.
That sentiment hasn’t stopped Barton. The Texas Republican has been particularly aggressive in his push for a rule change and is expected to press his case later this week during Republican organizational meetings.
Barton said he has been taking a dual track in his conversations with members of the Steering Committee and Republican leadership, asking them to consider a rule change while plugging his candidacy to remain atop the energy panel. He also sent a “Dear Colleague” letter Tuesday calling the Conference rule “ambiguous” and floated five options for changing it.
“Now is the time, before Republicans once again assume the majority, to strengthen and clarify the term limit rule for Chairmen,” Barton wrote. “The rule should be simple to understand, fair to all, be void of ambiguous language, and maintain the intent of the original rule.”
Barton is continuing his push for changing the rule in the press, within the Texas delegation and among his committee members.
“I’m a member of the Steering Committee, I’ve been on the Republican Steering Committee for 15 [to] 20 years,” Barton said. “It’s a very touchy-feely process and you have to work and visit with people and listen to people.”
Barton said he is confident of his ability to secure a waiver if the rules aren’t changed.
“I think I have a very good chance of getting the rule clarified and if that happens I think I have a very good chance to be nominated,” Barton said.
It’s not just Members who are facing being term-limited out of a gavel in the near future who are concerned about the rule.
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who is vying to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee if Barton is not extended a waiver, wants leadership to make changes to the waiver rules.
“I think it’s very vague and really not clearly specified, and, you know, we missed the boat the last two reorganizations by not addressing it,” Shimkus said. “There is no way a ranking-member position equals a chairmanship position. People can’t convince me of that.”
Shimkus said the Conference would suffer if people such as presumptive Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) had their tenure cut short because they had served as ranking member.
“It’s sad,” Shimkus said. “It has really put us in a position of where people are scrambling around.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.