It's a consequence of a decision Republicans made back in 1995, just after taking over the House for the first time in 40 years. For years prior to that, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich and his GOP colleagues watched as the oldest of Democratic old bulls turned House committees into personal fiefdoms. Lawmakers like Reps. Dan Rostenkowski, John Dingell, Jack Brooks and Jamie Whitten each led key committees for more than a decade.
The Republican answer, included in the Contract With America, was to support term limits for all members of Congress. But that would have required amending the Constitution, and they didn't have the support. Still, recalls former Rep. Vin Weber, who played a key role in planning the GOP's '94 victory, "The House Republicans wanted to do something to show good faith with the term-limits movement, which had given them a lot of support in the 1994 election."
So House leaders did something that was within their authority: They put a six-year limit on the tenures of committee chairmen. They made the rule extra-stringent with a provision that applied the limit even to times in the future when Republicans would be in the minority and serve as ranking members of committees. The idea was to go after the structures of power that chairmen build around themselves.
"What we were trying to break up, to a small extent, was the iron triangle of committee chairmanships and bureaucracies and constituent interests," Weber explains. "It was the notion that a person can spend his entire career on one committee, rise to the level of chairman, and establish relationships with the lobbyists who lobby that committee and the bureaucracy that it oversees. It was a bad idea to have that iron triangle."
It still is. Back in 1995, the new limits played no role in how Republicans initially ran the House; no House Republican at that time had ever led a committee or even served in the majority. But now, as the GOP returns to power under incoming Speaker John Boehner, the rule has come into play.
The new Republican chairmen -- Dave Camp of the Ways and Means Committee, Paul Ryan of Budget, Fred Upton of Energy and Commerce, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Foreign Affairs, Spencer Bachus of Financial Services, Hal Rogers of Appropriations, Darrell Issa of Oversight, and others -- are all veteran lawmakers. But they're new to the chairman's gavel and the power it holds. Meanwhile, some other Republican veterans, most notably Rep. Joe Barton, were denied chairmanships they sought -- in Barton's case, of the Energy and Commerce Committee -- because of the GOP's term limits.
During Nancy Pelosi's time as speaker, from 2007 until today, Democrats first tried to impose, then got rid of the chairmanship term limits. That made it possible for an old bull like Dingell, who chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 1995, to return to the chair as if nothing had happened when Democrats won control of the House in 2007. (Dingell was later knocked out of his post in a power struggle with Rep. Henry Waxman.) If Democrats had kept control of the House, the Waxmans of the party could count on holding onto power for as long as they had the strength.
No more. Boehner's re-imposition of chairmanship term limits is just one more way the GOP is trying to tell the American people that the party has learned its lesson. The limits aren't a miracle cure; it's safe to guess that some new chairmen will in time develop a too-cozy relationship with people who seek to benefit from proximity to power. But for the moment, the limits have ensured that Republicans won't treat congressional committees as personal possessions. And that is one more result of the GOP's remarkable victory on Nov. 2.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.