Is Joe Barton really the next in line for Energy & Commerce and Fred Upton just a pretender to the throne?

Fred Upton is so close the Left end of Republican Party he could peer off the edge just be leaning over a bit. Judging by the American Conservative Union's lifetime conservative rankings, he is No. 148 out of the 158 returning Republicans.

He's supposedly in line to chair the Energy & Commerce Committee because the committee's senior Republican, Joe Barton of Texas, has come up against term limits the GOP created in 1994.

But it's not so clear cut. Here are the rules as one GOP Hill staffer has sent them to me:

No individual shall serve more than three consecutive terms as Chairman or Ranking Member of a standing, select, joint, or ad hoc Committee or Subcommittee beginning with the 104th Congress…”

So, the relevant part: “No individual shall serve more than three consecutive terms as Chairman or Ranking Member of a standing … Committee.”

Barton became E&C chairman in early 2004 after then-chairman Billy Tauzin took a job as top drug lobbyist. He held it the gavel for one and a half terms until January 2007 when Democrats took over the House. Barton was then ranking member for two terms.

So here's the question: does the above rule prohibit Barton from serving another term (reportedly he's asking for only one) as chairman? Does it bar more than three consecutive terms as chairman/ranking member (in which case Barton is done)? Or does it bar more than three consecutive terms as chairman and more than three consecutive terms as ranking member (in which case Barton is eligible)?

Some considerations:

1) The precedent is bad for Barton. Bob Goodlatte, for instance, became chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in 2003 after Chairman Larry Combest resigned. Goodlatte served two terms as chairman, and after the Dem takeover, he served one term as ranking member. Then he gave up that slot and Frank Lucas got the ranking member job, and is in line to be chairman.

2) Senate Republicans found the rules vague enough they felt the need to issue multiple amendments. Under Senate rules, Barton would be allowed to serve as chairman.

3) There are other reasons the GOP leadership would want to keep Barton for the chair, and even if he is ruled eligible, it's up to the conference who they want as chairman.

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