Republican Reps. John Shimkus and Greg Walden are intensifying their campaigns to replace Chairman Fred Upton atop the powerful Energy and Commerce committee next year.
Lawmakers and lobbyists say more discussions are occurring on and off the Hill about the position and Upton’s replacement in recent weeks. Shimkus of Illinois is public about his interest, while Oregon’s Walden said in an interview he’d want to lead the committee “at some point” but is now focused on his work as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
It’s largely a two-man race. Shimkus has seniority on the panel, a key factor in Republican considerations of such plum assignments. But as NRCC chair, Walden helped the party defeat 11 Democrats and pick up five open seats in the last election cycle. The NRCC post also highlights his fundraising prowess: Walden has donated almost twice as much money to federal candidates as Shimkus this cycle, according to recent financial filings.
Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton, a former chairman of the panel, could also mount a dark horse campaign for the spot. The committee’s current leader Upton said in an interview that he’s “not planning to” seek a waiver of the term limits he faces.
Rank-and-file lawmakers are also already jockeying for a seat next year on the panel.
“We’re already hearing from people. They are coming by and pitching themselves,” Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, who sits on the Steering Committee, told Roll Call. He declined to discuss whether Shimkus or Walden has specifically approached the committee.
“If you’ve got somebody that has won a primary and doesn’t have a general [election challenge], if he or she is smart, they are already up here working,” said Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who was deputy chairman at the NRCC under Walden during the 2014 election campaign.
The race for the gavel will be one of the first tests of the new Steering Committee under Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin which was overhauled after former Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio resigned. That panel, which includes both Republican leadership and rank-and-file members, determines in closed meetings who will helm committees with vacant leadership spots. Unlike other members on the panel, Ryan has four votes and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California has two.
“In all of those deliberations, there’s a number of factors that are taken into consideration,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington told Roll Call. On the Steering Committee, she said, they “look at experience, you look at what the member has to offer, you look at seniority, you look at just their contribution to the entire team, so it’s a package deal.”
Factors at Play
Lobbyists across the health, energy and telecom industries that deal most closely with the panel all said Shimkus has the edge, especially since seniority played such a large role in the Steering Committee’s decision to promote Texas Rep. Kevin Brady to head the Ways and Means Committee last year. In that race, Ryan specifically asked that fundraising not be part of either lawmaker’s pitch to the Steering Committee, several lobbyists confirmed.
But while seniority will play a part, lobbyists said Walden’s commitment to the party, including serving two terms as NRCC chair, can’t be overlooked.
“If Walden doesn’t get it, you might as well hang a banner off of the speaker’s balcony … that hard work doesn’t matter,” one lobbyist said.
The leader of the Energy and Commerce Committee next year will be at the center of major legislative debates about health care, technology and energy policy.
Shimkus has spent recent weeks making the case that his seniority on the committee, coupled with his legislative accomplishments and experience serving on several different panel subcommittees, gives him the credentials needed to take the helm next Congress. He heads the panel’s environment subcommittee and has served on others since joining Energy and Commerce in 1997.
Shimkus outlined the criteria that he said the Steering Committee should use in making a determination.
“Do you work? Are you at hearings? Are you involved in the debate? Do you have some legislative credentials?” he said. “Seniority should mean something if everything else is equal.”
Shimkus has also highlighted to members his conservative record and his desire to use the panel chairmanship to pursue more Republican priorities, lobbyists say. A spokesperson for the lawmaker said Shimkus, during pitches, would characterize himself as a “pragmatic conservative.”
Walden emphasized that he is not focused on the chairmanship race, but rather on his district, his work overseeing the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology, and his job at the NRCC.
“It’s a great committee, and I value the opportunity to serve on it, and certainly the opportunity to lead it at some point is something that would be very important,” he said in an interview. “But my focus is on the NRCC and my official duties. We can always fight over the spoils after we gain them.”
Walden is in a more difficult spot as chairman of the NRCC, several lobbyists said. He can’t risking campaigning too much publicly, or he risks being accused of doing a poor job helping Republicans — especially if his party loses seats in the House this election cycle.
“No one wants to look like they’re counting chickens when they haven’t won the House yet,” one lobbyist said.
Both are expert fundraisers, but Walden has, perhaps unsurprisingly, given more in this cycle to his Republican colleagues. He’s handed over more than $900,000 to other GOP federal candidates and the NRCC since 2015, while Shimkus has donated just over $500,000, based on an analysis of filings for each candidate’s campaign accounts and their leadership PACs.
Lawmakers who currently sit on the Steering Committee said fundraising makes a difference.
“Whether it’s discussed in the room or not, as a former NRCC chairman, it does matter to me whether someone has been able to help the team,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told Roll Call. He is an at-large member of the panel this year.
Even Shimkus admits that raising money plays an important role in the deliberations.
“Regardless of what anybody says, it’s part of the evaluation process,” Shimkus said. “You’ve got to show that you’ve been actively supportive of helping Republicans maintain the majority or get back into the majority.”