House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth will make a pitch to fellow Democrats on Thursday to scrap a Democratic caucus rule that limits the committee’s members to no more than three terms in five successive Congresses.
As the committee gains more clout with President-elect Joe Biden in the White House next year, Yarmuth is making the argument that ending the committee term limits will allow Democratic members to serve longer and be more effective on the committee.
“Repealing these term limits from the Caucus Rules will allow the Budget Committee to operate like other committees and build up institutional knowledge with a core of Members who have insight and expertise on — and enthusiasm for — budget issues,” the Kentucky Democrat said in a statement. “This will be even more crucial as the Budget Committee moves forward with drafting a budget resolution, conducting oversight, and reasserting Congress’ power of the purse.”
The House GOP conference has no comparable term limits for Republican members of the Budget Committee.
For years, rules governing the full House’s operations contained a limitation on panel membership to no more than four terms in six successive Congresses. The rules package for the 116th Congress ditched that requirement, but Democrats’ internal rule wasn’t repealed, partly because Yarmuth didn’t make the deadline for recommending the change two years ago, according to an aide familiar with the discussions.
Yarmuth already made his case to the Committee on Caucus Procedures and expects to offer an amendment to eliminate the term limits requirement during Democrats’ Thursday session to draft their caucus rules, according to sources familiar with the process. The caucus is likely to vote on his request the same day.
The committee’s term limits are in part a vestige of fears that date back to when the House and Senate Budget committees were established as part of the 1974 law that created the modern budget process.
Members of powerful committees at the time, including the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee, feared that the new Budget Committee could become too powerful and displace some of their authority.
‘A fabulous idea’
Tom Kahn, a former Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee who teaches a course on the federal budget at American University, said the notion of imposing term limits was a way for other committee chairmen to keep the new panel’s power in check.
“One reason for the term limits is Budget Committee members would have a less-vested stake in protecting or even expanding the authority” of the committee, he said. But one of the effects was that “it has made it harder for committee members to develop significant expertise on the budget process because once they did, they had to leave.”
Kahn said ending term limits “is a fabulous idea” that “will make for a much stronger, more effective committee.”
In the initial 1974 budget law, House lawmakers were limited to two Budget panel terms out of five successive Congresses, although if a member served for less than a full session, that period would be discounted. The law said the panel would consist of five members from Ways and Means, five from Appropriations, one each from majority and minority leadership, and 11 from other standing committees.
There were no similar requirements for Senate Budget Committee membership.
Over the years, the term limits provisions were loosened by House rules packages until being scrapped for the 116th Congress. In 1979, the two-term requirement was increased to three. And in 1995, it was changed to the four Congresses out of six rule that was ultimately scrapped at the beginning of last year, according to a compendium of rules changes maintained by the House parliamentarian’s office.
Other exemptions were also gradually built in, such as the ability of a chairman or ranking minority member to serve for an additional “consecutive” Congress even if they hit their panel term limit, and two leadership-designated lawmakers were exempt from term limits. Those exemptions also carried over in Democrats’ caucus rules for the 116th Congress, although the main requirement was for three terms in five Congresses.
Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a second-term lawmaker who joined the Budget Committee last year, welcomed Yarmuth’s proposal. “Similar to most things in Congress, experience is the best teacher, especially on something as complex as the budget,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “Like with most committees, the longer you are on them, the better understanding you’ll have of its issues and better opportunities to build a strong rapport with members on both sides of the aisle.”
Panetta said removing the term limit “could better our efforts to actually formulate and produce a sound budget resolution.” The House Budget Committee did not consider or approve a budget resolution the past two years.
In 2018, the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, of which Yarmuth was a member, included the repeal of House Budget Committee term limits in the recommendations it voted on. While a majority on the committee voted for the recommendations, the proposals did not get the required majority from each set of members appointed by Democratic and Republican leaders in both chambers needed to advance.
Some of the old fears about a powerful Budget Committee encroaching on others’ turf, which seem unfounded based on recent history, remain enshrined in House rules. The panel is still required to have five members each from Appropriations and Ways and Means to keep a watchful eye.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.