Republicans Poised to Claim Key House Committee Chairs
Policy + Politics

Republicans Poised to Claim Key House Committee Chairs

Caitlin Curran / The Fiscal Times

Tuesday’s midterm elections are almost certain to usher in dramatic changes in the leadership of key spending, tax and financial oversight committees, as senior Republicans who have sharply differed with the Obama administration replace powerful Democratic chairmen.

If the Republicans take back control of the House, as most political analysts are predicting, the chief panels responsible for drafting all major money and financial legislation will be dominated by a combination of conservative young turks eager to slash spending and cut taxes, and older leaders more resistant to change.

  • On the Budget Committee, firebrand Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., author of a far-reaching budget "roadmap" that calls for partially privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program, would likely take over from moderate Democrat John Spratt of South Carolina.
  • On Appropriations, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, a former chairman in the mid-1990s, when the Republicans last held sway, is in line to regain the gavel from Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., a prominent liberal who is retiring. Lewis is the product of an era of bipartisan back-scratching and earmarks, although aides say he will have no choice but to take a tougher line on spending in the new Congress.
  • At Ways and Means, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., a wily veteran, would take over from a fellow Michigander, Democrat Sander Levin. Camp is known as a cooperative lawmaker and a deal-cutter. He worked closely with former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel when Emanuel was a House member from Chicago to expand tax credits for education costs and make improvements in the Hope scholarships for low-income students. Camp favors making Bush-era tax cuts permanent for all income groups.

    "He’s been around for a long time," John Feehery, who was press secretary to House Speaker Dennis Hastert in the 1990s, said of Camp. "He’s a conciliator. He’s no Bill Thomas," he added, referencing the former Ways and Means chairman who was renowned for his hair-trigger temper and arrogant personality.
  • Finally Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., a conservative who opposed Wall Street reform and TARP legislation, and who aggressively went after the Community Development Financial Institute in the Clinton administration, would take over from liberal chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Bachus knows the risks of appearing to be too conciliatory. He participated in the initial talks on the bailout of the financial industry and made a tentative pact with Democrats. But GOP leaders balked at the deal and replaced him in the negotiations with minority whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo. There was speculation that he had lost the confidence of House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio and might be replaced on the Ways and Means panel. But he promised to fall in line in the future, and won the backing of Eric Cantor, R-Va., the new House GOP whip, according to House aides.

Preparing for a Power Shift
Across Washington, lobbyists have been working behind the scenes now for months to prepare for this possible power shift. Former aides to Camp, who now work as lobbyists, are touching base with their former boss, conferring with him and his aides about staff appointments he might make when he takes over the Ways and Means Committee, and what tax or health care issues will be at the top of his agenda.

All of the prospective chairmen will be looking to Boehner, the probable new Speaker of the House, for direction and cues. But these experienced lawmakers have ideas of their own, and they will be dealing with a potentially unruly and combative freshman class, many of whom sprang from the Tea Party movement and are loathe to fall in line and embrace the old ways of Congress.

California’s Lewis, 76, one of the "old bulls" of the House, enjoys the backing of Boehner despite criticism from some newer members that he is too quick to make deals and that he was unapologetic about channeling federal funds into his district. Lewis "has a reputation as an appropriator who enjoyed his job," said Bookings Institution senior fellow Bill Galston, a smile in his voice. "Republican appropriators who enjoy their jobs will be on a very short leash in a [new] Republican Congress."

For sure, Lewis has a hard edge when need be, and when he chaired the subcommittee on veterans’ affairs and housing, he made deep cuts in agency spending. In 2004, when he rose to the chairmanship of the full Appropriations Committee, Lewis fired 60 contract employees and replaced them with a hand-picked staff. If he regains the chairmanship after next week’s election, aides say, he is likely to push for rolling back discretionary spending to fiscal 2008 levels, and cut any leftover funds from the Obama administration stimulus package.

Lewis would need a waiver from the Speaker and the Policy Committee to regain his gavel. Under the House rules, instituted the last time the Republicans were in charge, a chairman or ranking member can only serve six years. Lewis was chairman for two years and ranking member for four, but most leaders expect he will be back in the chairman’s seat come January and ready to push through a "rescission" bill that surgically trims funds from spending measures.

"A lot of what is contained in the [rescission] packages depends on what Congress does between now and the end of the year," said a senior GOP aide. None of the regular appropriations bills for fiscal 2011 has passed in this Congress, and a lame duck session may be disinclined to do anything more than pass stop-gap resolutions to keep the government running, particularly if the House changes hands.

Echoes of 1994
Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who advised Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders during the 1994 House Republican takeover, sees many similarities between now and then: a disconsolate electorate, bad economic times and an unpopular president. But the difference, he said, is that the incoming freshmen members will be even more strident about their positions and their refusal to compromise.

"John Boehner’s biggest problem will be that 30 or maybe 40 members are coming to Washington and they don’t believe in compromise when it comes to fiscal sanity," Luntz said in an interview with The Fiscal Times. "They won’t want a year-long moratorium on earmarks; they want a permanent end to them."

"They are going to tell appropriators ‘no,’" he added. "They will fight [Lewis] and he has to decide if he is willing to go through that. It’s going to be a brawl. They have intensity and rigidity, these incoming freshmen, when it comes to spending. Appropriators won’t know what hit them."

Appropriations and the Ways and Means Committee, the main tax-writing panel, will be particular battlegrounds when the Republicans attempt to dismantle portions of the health reform law signed into law by Obama this year. Those committees will be handling millions of dollars of funds needed to implement the new law over the next four years.

The probable change in House committee leadership also sets up a clash with the Senate, which may remain in Democratic hands, albeit with the Democrats holding a much slimmer majority than they currently have. Moreover, President Obama could veto any legislation coming out of the House, with little prospect for an override in either chamber. The change in leadership also could have consequences for Obama’s Fiscal Commission. Republican House members of the commission were reluctant participants to begin with, and their newfound power as heads of committees gives them less incentive to strike a deal with Democrats.