The incoming GOP House majority has vowed to fix what it says is a broken committee process. But the untested relationships of the many new chairmen and ranking members may hinder Republicans’ ability to make good on that promise.
Nine committees will have a different partnership at the helm, and seven more are still undecided pending the outcome of gavel challenges and leader-appointed posts. Among the key battles still to be determined are top committees such as Appropriations and Energy and Commerce.
With the Republican takeover and several longtime Democratic chairmen not returning in the next Congress, there will be more change to the leader dynamics on important panels than there has been in several years.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman said his relationships with his counterparts over the years have run the gamut from good to professional to downright nasty.
“I’ve had a mix,” the California Democrat said, noting he has a good relationship with ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas). “For the most part I try to recognize as a professional you have to handle yourself in an appropriate way.”
Waxman said his relationships with the top Republicans on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he was the top Democrat from 1997 to 2009, were particularly varied.
“I did not have the best of relationships with Rep. Dan Burton [Ind.], and I had an awful relationship with a guy named [former Rep.] Bill Dannemeyer [Calif.] many years ago.”
It’s unclear who Waxman will be working with as chairman in the next Congress, and he isn’t the only top Democrat who could be starting from scratch.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who is expected to lead the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he was optimistic that he and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) — the likely ranking member — will be able to work together well.
Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the current chairman, lost re-election.
“Our committee has always been pretty bipartisan,” Mica said, adding he had already reached out to Rahall. “Oberstar and I had a good social relationship — not so much with [Rahall], but I know him. I think he’ll be very compatible to work with.”
Sometimes the relationships between new committee heads can sour fast.
“Jane Harman and I got along very, very well,” Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said of the California Democrat who served as the ranking member in the 109th Congress. “We were able to get the things done we needed to get done.”
“Sadly, I have never had that relationship with the current chairman,” Hoekstra said, referring to Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas).
“Jane and I worked through some really tough stuff together. We did intel reform together,” he said. “This was just different.”
Reyes and Hoekstra’s most notable clash came during the Republican push for the disclosure of classified documents to determine whether the CIA lied to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) about the use of severe interrogation tactics on detainees.
At the time, Reyes blasted Hoekstra’s push for the document disclosure as “the height of irresponsibility.”
Some chairmen and ranking members simply fail to connect, while others end up having a more caustic relationship that proves to be both distracting and unproductive.
Former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), then the ranking member, had a famously dysfunctional relationship. Their dislike for one another came to a head when Thomas called Capitol Police to evict Rangel and other committee Democrats from a committee room during a debate over pension reform legislation.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the likely chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, went through a similar frosty period with Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) in 2009, when Democrats had the locks changed on the committee’s room and refused to give their GOP colleagues keys.
But despite a few minor rifts, Issa said he and Towns have maintained a good working relationship.
“I think it’s desirable to have a good working relationship with your counterpart,” he said. “We’ve had a good chairman-ranking member working relationship — one in which it’s been tough but fair.”
Rep. Lamar Smith said the key to having a personal relationship is maintaining respect for the individual, no matter how partisan the debates.
The Texas Republican, the presumptive chairman of the Judiciary Committee who will work alongside Rep. John Conyers, said he and the Michigan Democrat have had an “unwritten rule” that has kept their personal relationship intact.
“We never mention the other person by name in a press release. That goes a long way to eliminating the boiling water,” Smith said.
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.