Politics

Chaffetz Departure Opens Coveted Oversight Chairmanship

Freedom Caucus members in panel’s leadership poised to make a play for seat

The departure of Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, left, could give Reps. Trey Gowdy, middle, and Jim Jordan, right, an opportunity to capture the coveted seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As Chairman Jason Chaffetz suggested Wednesday he may not finish his congressional term, top Republicans on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee mostly avoided weighing in on whether they would seek the seat under a GOP White House.

The Utah Republican unabashedly used the position of being the House’s top inquisitor to become nationally prominent in a coveted seat. But he did so under a Democratic administration that the House GOP despised.

[Chaffetz Lays out Different Direction for Oversight]

Now, the next leader of the powerful panel will have to deal with a White House that belongs to their own political party, which could complicate matters of accountability.

Republicans would face the conundrum of being put in a position that requires them to investigate an administration belonging to their own party, Brookings Institute fellow Molly Reynolds said.

“That does limit the ability of a chairman to use the chairmanship to make his or her political career,” Reynolds said. It would be harder to hold “shell hearings” that intend to “embarrass the other party,” which would be the case if the White House was being run by Democrats, she said.

That is, unless a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus makes a go at landing in the chair. Nearly half of the committee’s Republican side belongs to the conservative group, including its chairman. Five of them rank among the top eight members of the committee.

On the one hand a Freedom Caucus member would relish in a committee chairmanship role, which they have often requested but maybe not one with this sort of challenge, Reynolds said.

“At the same time they would prefer it to be something where they don’t have to confront this problem,” Reynolds said.

Rep. Jim Jordan, the former caucus chairman who ranks third on the committee, is the highest ranking Freedom Caucus member. He ran against Chaffetz in 2015.

The Ohio Republican breaks frequently with the GOP conference and made no qualms about not supporting a health care bill Republicans tried to push through the House in March.

A GOP aide called Jordan “the logical successor, as one of the senior most members on the committee and a multi-term subcommittee chairman.”

[Chaffetz Wins Four-Way Showdown for Oversight Gavel]

Jordan’s spokesman would only point to tweets Jordan sent after Chaffetz announced he was leaving Congress.

“I look forward 2 working w/ @jasoninthehouse 4 rest of 115th #Congress and wish him all the best in his next steps,” Jordan wrote.

A spokesman for Rep. Paul Gosar was the only staffer who gave a definitive answer on whether his boss who run for the chairmanship — and it was a resounding no.

Gosar, an Arizona Republican and Freedom Caucus member, is ranked sixth on the committee.

The panel also includes current caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, an unlikely bet for the committee chairmanship while heading the caucus.

The chairman of Oversight is typically picked by the Republican Steering Committee. If Chaffetz leaves Congress before his term ends in 2018 that process would still be in place. The timing of Chaffetz’s departure remains unclear.

In addition to Freedom Caucus members, other top Republicans in the panel left the option open — or simply did not respond to requests for comment.

That included a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, who once chaired the committee and can technically again. Issa was another outspoken top lawmaker on the panel who went after the Obama administration relentlessly on issues ranging from the IRS to Benghazi. A spokesman for Rep. John Duncan, who ranks second on the committee behind Chaffetz, also did not respond.

A spokesman for Mark Sanford, also a member of the Freedom Caucus who ranks fourth on the committee, did not return a request.

Rep. Trey Gowdy is not a member of the Freedom Caucus but famously put the spotlight on himself from the dais when he was chairman of the Benghazi Committee during which he questioned former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for hours.

The South Carolina Republican’s spokeswoman said the topic of him running for chairman was not “something we are interested in discussing.”

Contact Rahman at remarahman@cqrollcall.com or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.