Capitol Hill Republicans are nervous about November. The margins of their majority are dwindling in both chambers. It’s looking like a good year to run as a Democrat, and President Trump isn’t helping with his weak polls and potent controversies.
But at least one of the woes afflicting the current majority on the House side has its roots in the politics of a generation ago. And its power to shape elections even now testifies to the enduring legacy of a leader who left the halls of power long ago — Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich was the onetime college professor with the signature shock of white hair who ran the House back in the 1990s. He was speaker for only four years, but his impact on Congress — and on American political life in general — is quite real as you read this.
Among other things, Gingrich engineered the rule changes that today have committee chairs and other powerful senior Republicans heading for the exits. An eye-popping eight chairs have called it quits, leading an even larger pack of more than 30 Republicans voluntarily leaving the chamber.
That is close to half of all the full committee chairs. In past generations, these chairs were the masters of the agenda, ruling based on their seniority and longevity. They kept their grip on the gavels until they, or the Almighty, decided otherwise.
Then came Gingrich. The long-shot candidate of the 1970s and brash back-bencher of the 1980s had, by the mid-1990s, reached the top of GOP leadership in the House. With his bold strategizing and prescient appeals to populism, Gingrich helped his party break through to its first majority in 40 years.
But Gingrich as speaker was not content with whipping the Democrats once. He wanted Republicans to become a permanent majority party. And he wanted to run the House without too much interference from committee chairs who might or might not share the Spirit of ’94 or revel in the “Gingrich Revolution.”
Never a great fan of seniority’s sacred status, Gingrich let it be known he planned to have the chairmanships determined by the will of all the majority members — guided, of course, by their leader. If the speaker’s interview with a prospective chair went well, so be it. If not, well Gingrich showed he was willing to pass over the most senior and even the second or third most senior member of a panel to find the chairman who would “work with him.”
Moreover, Gingrich took on seniority when he embraced the concept of term limits. Nothing could be more inimical to seniority than term limits, which in effect convert seniority from an asset to a disqualification for office.
Term limits were part of the much ballyhooed “Contract with America,” a list of ideas the House pledged to vote for in its first 100 days under Republican control. It turned out to be the one item they couldn’t pass, if only because it required a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution. (It fell more than 60 votes shy.)
To placate the disappointed backers of term limits, Gingrich agreed to a rule change limiting the terms of committee and subcommittee chairs. It may also have occurred to the speaker, at least in passing, that chairs who were lame ducks might be easier to keep in line.
There was fierce resistance from a few of the most senior members, of course. The venerable Henry Hyde of Illinois called the term limits a distortion born of “angry, pessimistic populism.”
But the change proved popular with the huge freshman class that had been elected in 1994. And soon, it became the new normal. While an occasional waiver has been granted here and there, it has been so ever since. Even the Senate Republicans followed suit, albeit reluctantly.
The Senate version of term limits, although also set at six years, makes it easy for major committee chairs to simply swap gavels. Thus Orrin Hatch ceded his perch chairing judiciary to Charles Grassley but was pleased to assume the helm of the Finance Committee as a consequence. Thus the term limits have been less of an incentive for retirement in that chamber.
But the difficulty of finding a new goal or objective has become a powerful inducement for House chairs to find their next horizon off the Hill. For some, such as retiring Jeb Hensarling and Lamar Smith, both Texans, the choice seems obvious. As chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Hensarling has many excellent connections to the world of money. As chair of Science, Space and Technology, Smith too is well-acquainted with a world in which his expertise will be welcome and well-remunerated.
Will Congress miss the eight chairs leaving at the end of this year? Surely, in some measure. The House in particular seems in need of the knowledge and civility that often come with greater experience.
And the spectacle of so many senior members heading for the door at once creates a discouraging atmosphere for the midterm cycle — a bad omen for maintaining the party’s majority.
At the same time, plenty of other Republicans will, of course, be more than willing to step up into the big armchairs and begin posing for their own oil paintings as committee chairs. Seniority will once again play its outsize role, but youth will be also served in a way it almost never was in the old system — sans limits.
And it must be said, all this was very much what Speaker Gingrich had in mind, nearly a quarter of a century ago.