For the past four years, Republicans endured pointed barbs about how the only woman with a House committee gavel was presiding over the fittingly sexist-sounding “housekeeping committee,” the Hill’s nickname for the panel overseeing the Capitol’s internal operations.
That’s not a fair jape anymore. Exactly a century after the arrival of the first female elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, her GOP successors will be wielding more titular power in the Republican-run House than ever. Women will soon be presiding over three standing committees, a record for the party, while a fourth has taken over what’s arguably the chamber’s single most consequential subcommittee, because it takes the lead in apportioning more than half of all discretionary federal spending.
After disappointing efforts in the last two campaigns to recruit more conservative women as congressional candidates, a paltry 9 percent of the Republican conference’s membership in the 115th Congress is female. That share has remained essentially unchanged in this millennium, even as the Democratic caucus membership has expanded from one woman in six as recently as 2001 to just below of one out of three today.
But, thanks to benefits of seniority combined with the party’s term limits for its chairmen, women in the GOP are suddenly wielding a disproportionate share of clout in the committee rooms — a boomlet in power that can’t be a bad thing for a party that continues to suffer at the polls from a yawning gender gap.
Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, a county school board member and community college president before entering politics, has become the first female to hold the Education and the Workforce gavel as she begins her seventh term, just as her party renews its push to return more school policymaking powers to the states.
Susan W. Brooks, once the top federal prosecutor in Indianapolis, has been promoted to chair the Ethics Committee in her third term, when Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” as president (combined with the GOP’s quickly abandoned move this month to gut the congressional policing system) will put a bright spotlight on how aggressively lawmakers regulate their own behavior.
Diane Black of Tennessee, elected in the tea party-infused 2010 takeover election and one of the richest members of Congress thanks to the drug-testing company she founded, is running the Budget Committee on an interim basis. She will become the first no-asterisk female leader in the panel’s history as soon as Georgia’s Tom Price is confirmed as Health and Human Services secretary, making her a central player in all fiscal policy dealings between Congress and the Trump administration.
And Kay Granger, who moved from the Fort Worth mayor’s office to Congress two decades ago, is the new chairwoman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which drives the allocation of more than half a trillion dollars annually to the military. To get that premier assignment, the Texan outmaneuvered Harold Rogers of Kentucky, who was angling for the best possible consolation prize after being term-limited as chairman of the full committee.
Toeing the party line
All of these new power players are unambiguously conservative and reliably partisan. On House floor votes during President Barack Obama’s second term in which most Republicans voted opposite from most Democrats, each woman toed the party line more often than the 95 percent four-year average for members of their caucus.
Beyond that group, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington is starting her fifth year as No. 4 in the leadership as chairwoman of the Republican Conference. And at least another half dozen women besides Granger look likely to end up at the helms of subcommittees once all those assignments have been made — meaning a majority of the 21 GOP women in the House will hold some sort of gavel.
In the most prominent assignments thus far, Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn has been put in charge of the Energy and Commerce panel overseeing telecommunications policy, Ann Wagner has been tapped for the oversight panel at Financial Services, her Missouri colleague Vicky Hartzler has a similar subcommittee at Armed Services, and that committee tapped Elise Stefanik of New York as chairwoman of the panel overseeing programs to counter terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The situation for Republicans is similar across the Capitol, where only five of the 21 female senators are in the majority but each is assured a solid measure of policymaking influence.
Susan Collins of Maine has started her third decade in office by becoming the first woman from her party to chair two different Senate committees, taking over the Aging Committee because her term is up at Homeland Security and Government Affairs. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is starting her third year chairing Energy and Natural Resources. Both of them will also be Appropriations subcommittee chairwomen, as will Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Joni Ernst of Iowa will end up with gavels at one or more domestic policy subcommittees.
The Democratic record
To be sure, the level of power being exercised by women in this Republican-run Congress is not the same as when the opposing party was last in charge. Just three years ago, seven Democratic women chaired Senate committees, while a decade ago the House elected Nancy Pelosi as its first female speaker and four committees were run by women.
And if Democrats were to win back control in 2018, seven women would likely be put in charge of Senate panels again while at least five House committees would get female leaders.
Still, the boomlet in promotions for female Republicans, especially in the House, is nonetheless notable. Before this year’s three new chairwomen, only six Republican women had ever run full committees. The first was Mae Ella Nolan of California, the first person to succeed her husband in Congress, who chaired the postal oversight panel in the 1920s. The most recent was Candice S. Miller, who gave up the chairmanship of the “housekeeping” House Administration Committee last year to move home and win election as a county public works commissioner in suburban Detroit.
The shifting gender balance in the House GOP can accelerate only so far, however, until the party delivers more women to Capitol Hill. To that end, Stefanik, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress when she secured her seat in 2014 at age 30, was named last week as the first woman to run her party’s congressional candidate recruiting operation.
Having as many women in office as men, on either party’s membership roster, probably won’t be achieved for years. But once the number crests 20 percent, where it’s been hovering since the start of the decade, that critical mass may facilitate a measurable boost in power for female lawmakers.
“Turns out, women don’t need parity to change the culture and influence outcomes,” former Time magazine congressional correspondent Jay Newton Small writes In “Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works,” published last year, which maintains that the one-in-five ratio has been the crucial tipping point in other governmental and business institutions.
“If women can get to a critical mass, that will make all the difference,” her book concludes. “Women are not there yet by any means, but reaching broad influence means that we’re no longer struggling, isolated and alone, as my mother had. And I like to think she too would find, as I have, that in numbers comes safety — and power.”