Kline is among the Republicans who could be forced to hand over a gavel given self-imposed term limits, though he may receive a waiver. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
House Republicans are facing a brain drain of historic proportions atop their committees — as many as half of their chairmen could be forced to step down next year, thanks to a 20-year-old rule.
The shakeup is due mostly to the GOP’s self-imposed limit, adopted in 1994, on how long a Republican congressman can chair a committee. It’s a policy that is widely popular within the Republican Conference, but is increasingly being questioned by members losing their gavels.
The impending shuffle will do little to change the demographics of the Republican leadership structure — almost all of the white men leading the committees will be replaced by other white men. But critics say the debate is about more than optics. Term limits, they say, effectively sideline some of the party’s most effective legislators.
“You want the best person in the job and I just think to have an arbitrary term limit cuts into that,” said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., a former Homeland Security Committee chairman and a longtime opponent of the practice. “Term limits are anti-democratic. You’re telling voters they can’t vote for someone they want to vote for.”
Proponents, however, say the negatives associated with limiting chairmen or ranking members to three terms are outweighed by the positives of keeping committees vital with fresh ideas and preventing a small group of members from consolidating too much power. “We’re losing a lot of great chairmen obviously,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told CQ Roll Call. “That’s kind of the nature of the beast since they changed the rules in the 1990s. . . . I think the rotation’s healthy. I think it’s here to stay.”
Either way, the six-year maximum is unlikely to change, and it will cause abnormally high turnover after this year. Three term-limited chairman are retiring, most notably 60-year-old Ways and Means ChairmanDave Camp, R-Mich., a well-liked member of the conference who has been pushing unsuccessfully for years to rewrite the tax code.
Also retiring in the face of term limits are Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan also is retiring, though he has another term left on the committee before he is capped.
At a January news conference announcing his retirement, McKeon, 75, said reaching his term limit was the “biggest motivator” of his decision. Camp, when asked earlier this month whether he thinks term limits are a mistake, told reporters, “Yeah. I think so.”
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.