ANALYSIS | For Republican committee chairmen, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes has had a month that amounts to a cautionary tale.
One day, you can be the respected chairman of one of the last remaining bipartisan committees on Capitol Hill. A few weeks later, your ranking member is calling for you to step aside from the most important probe the panel has done in years. Such is life for Republican committee chairmen in the Trump era.
Donald Trump, nearly 70 days into his presidency, is bucking traditional institutions and paying little heed to the conventional ways of Washington. As he moves toward several legislative priorities and pending deadlines that require congressional action, standing directly in Trump’s path are the once-powerful chairmen of the very congressional committees that will make or break his agenda.
But there are plenty of reasons for these legislative power brokers to worry. Here are four that have surfaced during Trump’s first two months:
“Anything’s possible,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday when asked if Nunes might have gotten intelligence reports that included the “unmasked” names of Trump associates — and perhaps Trump himself — from White House aides or those deeper in the administration.
But just four days ealier, when asked the same thing, Spicer replied, “It doesn’t really pass the smell test.”
Nunes was forced to admit on Monday that he went to the White House grounds to view the documents inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just steps from the West Wing. Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a House GOP deputy whip, has described Nunes as loyal to his friends, and always willing to help them in a fight. Nunes served as an adviser to the Trump campaign, and last week, he spoke of a “duty” he felt to inform Trump about the documents an unnamed source showed him.
But the tradecraft used to get the intelligence reports in front of Nunes was questionable, raising more questions than answers. The disclosure prompted the panel’s ranking Democrat, California Rep. Adam Schiff, to call for him to step aside from the Russia probe. So, too, did House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Ben Rhodes, a former national security aide to President Barack Obama, tweeted that Nunes’ contention that no Trump aides knew he was on campus was “literally impossible” because “you can’t get into the WH if someone doesn’t clear you in. And you can’t get into a SCIF [or sensitive compartmented information facility] either.”
Senior White House aides are fond of saying the failed House health care bill was subject to three committee markups. But those sessions were not the kind used for decades to craft major and routine legislation — and, had it crossed the Capitol to the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell planned to take it straight to the floor.
Writing legislation via the committee process not only lets rank-and-file members offer ideas and vote on potential changes, it gives committee chairmen the chance to shape bills. Doing that, however, on upcoming agenda issues like taxes and infrastructure would shift power from a president who ran and continues to portray himself as a one-man fixer to multiple committee chairmen in both chambers.
Spicer and other White House aides often speak of an intention to work with Congress to accomplish Trump’s goals. But, so far, that has not meant using the committee process, often referred to on the Hill as “regular order.” So it was notable Monday evening when Cole, an old-school deal-maker who, so far, has defended the bombastic GOP president, offered some advice.
“I think I would go back to regular order, which tends to be our friend, instead of adopt, you know, methods that, like on the health bill, require trying to assuage GOP factions with disparate demands,” Cole said. “I wouldn’t start down that road if I wasn’t absolutely certain the votes were going to be there. “And as I look at tax reform, I don’t see that certainty.”
For decades, the so-called Cardinals, the leaders of the House and Senate spending subcommittees, ran the appropriations process. The chairmen of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees wrote tax bills. And presidents worked to maintain close relations with them — and, when they claimed the same party, sway them to enact the chief executive’s agenda.
Times could be changing.
Consider White House budget director Mick Mulvaney’s stern — but not widely reported — warning for the Cardinals on March 16. He said the Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget plan is meant, in part, as a direction to lawmakers to stop funding federal programs that the authorizing committees have opted against approving.
“The message,” Mulvaney said, “is that’s not the right way to do it.”
Then, on Monday, Spicer informed reporters of the White House’s expectations for a coming Republican effort to slash taxes and alter the federal tax code: “Obviously, we’re driving the train on this.” That means not only must the Ways and Means and Finance leaders gear up for a fight on the complicated details of writing a tax overhaul package, but perhaps for a turf war with the president and his aides, too.
If a speaker or majority leader cannot depend on his committee chairmen when vote counts get tight, whom can he depend on? And, if a committee chairman cannot count on his leader for floor time and other assistance when their bills take on water, whom can he depend on?
Nunes, for instance, is hanging on to his gavel because Ryan is standing by him. But Trump has already tested this longtime Hill balance.
“We learned a lot about loyalty,” Trump said Friday of the health care bill process. “We learned a lot about the vote-getting process.”
Trump forced House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, who typically sides with Speaker Paul D. Ryan, into a corner late last week. And Frelinghuysen raised eyebrows from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other when he announced on Friday morning that, should a vote happen, he would buck Ryan and vote against the health care measure, calling it “unacceptable.”
Trump’s tactics have strained loyalties within the House GOP conference. One of his biggest congressional allies, New York Rep. Chris Collins, spoke Tuesday of the “open wound” following the failed health care push, adding that “the mood within our conference is very tense.”