Chairman Term Limits Make Congress a Better Place
Two of the most skilled Republican members of the House of Representatives announced their retirement over the past 10 days. Their departure is unfortunate, but the hand-wringing over term limits for committee chairmen is misplaced.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp and Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers , both from Michigan, are leaving. They are influential and respected across the political aisle, and their departure will exacerbate the partisan rancor in the House.
Coming shortly after the news of the retirements of two Michigan Democrats -- Senator Carl Levin and Representative John Dingell , the longest-serving House member -- the decisions by Camp and Rogers are a blow to that state's influence in Washington.
Four House committee chairmen have announced retirements this year. In several cases, including Camp's, a major contributor to their decision was the reform introduced in 1994 by Speaker Newt Gingrich that required Republicans to serve as committee chairmen for no more than six years. This rule is criticized when it forces out respected members. Yet it's one of the few Gingrich reforms that endures and, on balance, has been positive.
It recognizes that longtime committee leaders can become captive of the interests and agencies they oversee. New committee chairmen are more likely to bring fresh perspectives. Sure, critics say, but you lose expertise. Yet the rule doesn't require term-limited chairmen to leave Congress or even the committee. (Democrats are more stuck in the old system.)
The successor chairmen are picked by the speaker and the party's steering committee, whose interest is to tap someone with skill and knowledge. If Republicans retain control of the House, which is almost a certainty, the next Ways and Means chairman will be Wisconsin's Paul Ryan or Texas' Kevin Brady . Both will have served on the tax-writing committee for 14 years, and offer legislative and substantive expertise.
A similar situation is likely to unfold in the House Armed Services Committee, whose chairman, Representative Buck McKeon of California, is leaving. The probable next chairman is Mac Thornberry of Texas, one of the Republican Party's foremost experts on national security, who has served on the panel since he arrived in Congress in 1995.
This rule makes it easier to replace ineffective leaders. If Senate Democrats, who rely almost exclusively on seniority, had the same requirement, it's certain there would be several different, and probably better, committee chairmen.
Although term limits for legislative chairmen have much value, it's harder to make a case for officeholders; that deprives voters of choices. Terms limits were a conservative craze a quarter-century ago. On the national level, the clamor dimmed after Republicans won the House in 1994.
But fueled by voter initiatives, 15 states, led by California, have enacted term limits for state legislators. Hopes that these would produce better and more collaborative politics haven't been realized. Results vary from state to state, but most studies suggest that these legislatures have fewer skilled and experienced leaders and that power has shifted to unelected staff and lobbyists.
Some power flows to governors, though 36 of 50 states impose term limits on the chief executive. The most severe case is Virginia, which allows its leader a single four-year term. It's probably no accident that in recent years four former Virginia governors have served in the U.S. Senate; there are few other places to go.
The Constitution limits the president to two terms, a classic case of a law of unintended consequences. The 22nd Amendment passed the Republican Congress in 1947, and aimed to do to Franklin D. Roosevelt in death what his opponents couldn't do to him in life: deny the president more than two terms. The first two it affected were Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan , both Republicans.
There is little evidence that's happened with the Gingrich rule. One flaw is that the Republicans' six-year limit includes service as ranking minority member; that's why Camp only got four years as chairman. That should be changed.
Camp, who this year offered the most ambitious tax-reform proposals in a quarter-century, just doesn't see a future role. In any case, he volunteers, he has been in the House since 1990. "Twelve terms is a long time," he says.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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