Dems may repeal term limits for House chairs

Rules change under consideration could disrupt opening of Congress this week.

House Democrats tentatively plan to repeal term limits for committee chairmanships when the 111th Congress convenes on Tuesday, according to senior House aides. The result would remove one of the signature reforms from the 12-year House Republican rule and likely would cause angry debate during the usually ceremonial opening day festivities.

Although the prospective rules change has been actively pushed by the barons of the House since Democrats regained control two years ago, the elimination of the six-year term limits would not necessarily return the House to the bygone era in which committee chairs ruled without accountability. Among other things, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been a more assertive Speaker than her Democratic predecessors, and she has positioned herself to assure that committee leaders are responsive to her views and those of the Democratic Caucus.

The planned rules changes -- of which the end of term limits would be a key piece -- are being tightly held by a small number of senior Democratic staffers, in part because Democrats fear public discussion would create a media firestorm. Actual details are not expected to be completed until Monday, during a planned meeting of the Democratic Caucus. The House typically takes up its biennial rules package immediately after members have been sworn in and a Speaker elected for the new Congress, and while many lawmakers -- especially freshmen -- are busy with celebratory parties.

Another controversial prospective rules change, which would have more immediate impact on day-to-day activities in the House, is a significant weakening of the "motion to recommit," which provides the minority party at least one opportunity to offer an alternative to pending legislation. Republicans likely will say that this change runs directly counter to President-elect Obama's promise for more openness in Washington, though it is unlikely that Obama is familiar with the prospective parliamentary revisions.

Several Republican sources said last week they were confident that Democrats plan to eliminate term limits. "There has been no consultation with Republicans. But our knowledge is pretty firm, based on what we have been told by people who are familiar with what the Democrats are doing," said Jo Maney, Republican spokeswoman at the House Rules Committee. "Removal of term limits is galling. It's a consolidation of power, and removes accountability. The American people won't like it."

Aides to Minority Leader John Boehner predict Republicans would strongly object, though the handling of the opening-day rules package typically would not give them an opportunity for a separate vote on the term-limits removal. Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said he could not confirm the GOP speculation or comment on the Democrats' plans.

Term limits were a major theme in the House Republicans' Contract with America in 1994, when they swept to House control with a 52-seat gain. The Contract called for an unprecedented vote on a constitutional amendment to limit service in Congress, with a stated goal to "replace career politicians with citizen legislators."

When the term-limits measure failed to gain the requisite two-thirds support, it notably became the only part of the Contract that the House defeated. But Republicans contend that they acted in that spirit when they revised House rules to impose six-year limits on chairmanships at the start of 1995. The result was a regular turnover of chairmanships, although some senior members subsequently took the gavel at other committees.

Ironically, House Democrats in mid-November removed their most senior chairman during organizational meetings for the new Congress. They could cite that ouster of Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., from the Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship -- a post that he had held for 28 years -- as an ad hoc version of term limits. Dingell, the House dean, will be replaced by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who had been chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Waxman has been among the most outspoken critics of term limits. When he sought to remove them soon after Democrats took control in 2007, Pelosi reportedly assured him that she would eventually address the issue. (During the 12-year Republican reign in the House, only one committee chairman was ousted: Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, who was viewed as too independent of party leaders during his tenure as chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee.)

The prospective move could create grumbling among rank-and-file Democrats, who might find their ambitions stifled by the return of long-reigning committee chairs. But they will have little immediate recourse, given the tradition that voting for the opening-day rules package is mandatory for members of the majority party.

Interestingly, Boehner became a leading advocate of term limits for committee chairmanships after he was first elected to the House in 1990. During a November 1994 interview with National Journal, he said the change was needed because chairmanships were not selected by an "open and free" process. But Boehner -- who was a key architect of the Contract with America and at the time was a close ally to Speaker Newt Gingrich, and later became chairman of what was then the Education and the Workforce Committee -- parted company with fellow Republicans on the broader term-limits options for service in the House; he voiced fear that they would shift power to unelected aides and lobbyists.

In the Senate, Republicans implemented a similar regime of term limits for their committee chairmanships. But, unlike in the House, those changes were not part of the chamber's rules, and Senate Democrats never installed their own term limits.