House GOP modifies term limit for committee chairmen

After 6 years as chair, leaders may take over gavel of another panel

June 18, 1999|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans have modified a 6-year-old rule change they once touted as a key to reforming the House of Representatives.

In 1994, after voters handed Republicans control of Congress and Newt Gingrich was elected speaker, House Republicans set a six-year term limit for all committee chairmen, saying this was a way to limit the power of seniority, prevent chairmen from becoming entrenched and allow a younger generation of lawmakers a chance to lead without having to spend decades working their way up.

The limit was an easy sell at the time because the new Republican chairmen wouldn't feel the pain for six years. Now the bill is coming due, and the new Republican leadership has softened the terms of payment.

The leaders have decided that while chairmen must give up the gavel at the committees they now run, they are free to move over to another committee chairmanship rather than take a seat with the rank and file.

Many chairmen have enough seniority on multiple committees to claim another chairmanship. Others will become subcommittee chairmen, still holding the reins -- and the purse strings -- over specific areas of government.

While younger members of Congress are likely to be unhappy with the decision, analysts say it has its advantages.

"Continuity is probably a good thing," said Kim Wallace, an analyst with Lehman Brothers' Washington office. "These are difficult positions, and complex issues take time to learn."

The decision will allow House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, to retain oversight of the billions of dollars authorized each Congress for national highways and other road projects. He intends to invoke his seniority and take over the panel's ground transportation subcommittee, committee spokesman Scott Brenner said.

Shuster and some other panel chairman had asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republican leaders to clarify whether the term-limit rules would block them from switching to top posts on other committees.

A number of long-time chairmen are slated to lose their slots when the six-year limits push them out in January, including Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia and Banking and Financial Services Chairman Jim Leach of Iowa.

A spokesman for Hastert said the decision was a clarification of the term-limit rule rather than a change.

"You don't want to punish people because they have seniority," said spokesman John Feehery.

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