The primary election season for the next Congress opens officially on March 3, as states from California to Arkansas begin counting votes for candidates vying for seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. But many ballots will not include the names of dozens of incumbents who have opted not to seek re-election. For some of them, especially Republicans, party-imposed term limits for their committee leadership positions played a key role in their decisions.
Such decisions illustrate how party term limits that have been in effect since the 1990s for committee chairs and ranking members prevent members of Congress from leveraging the full extent of their experience for better oversight, including on committees with jurisdiction over U.S. national security policy. While the two main political parties appear unlikely to change such term limits soon, there are alternatives. Congress should pursue reasonable adjustments to better leverage the experience of their longest-serving members, especially in national security oversight.
President Donald Trump has even entered the debate over term limits for congressional committees. “House Republicans should allow Chairs of Committees to remain for longer than 6 years,” Trump wrote in September. “It forces great people, and real leaders, to leave after serving.”
While a stream of retirements by Republican lawmakers appears to have prompted the president’s concern, the party’s committee term limits should worry advocates of competent congressional oversight, too, especially in the area of U.S. national security. Supporters of term limits argue they reward new leadership and fresh perspectives on Capitol Hill. But chairs and ranking members with deeper experience can find themselves sidelined by these rules, and the committees are left to grapple with increasingly complex global issues without the benefit of institutional and historical knowledge and experience.
The Problems with Term Limits for Committee Chairs
Scholars have criticized term limits and other restrictions for chairs and ranking members imposed by the Republican conferences in Congress, saying they preclude the committees’ most senior members from developing expertise – and therefore governing more effectively — in the policy areas at the heart of their oversight responsibilities. While the House’s rules impose term limits on the members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), the House Republican Conference also limits members to only three terms as chair or ranking member of any committee. The rules of the Senate Republican Conference restrict senators to six years as chair of any committee and six years as ranking member. Congressional Democrats do not impose committee leadership term limits on their members.
Research by University of Virginia Professor Craig Volden and Vanderbilt University Professor Alan Wiseman has concluded that a representative’s “effectiveness,” measured by a member’s ability to sponsor legislation and pass substantive bills through the legislative process, usually increases over time, especially for committee chairs. Drawing from their research, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Molly Reynolds argues that committee leadership term limits may also prompt more senior members to retire more quickly, taking years of oversight experience with them.
This problem, Dartmouth Professor Linda L. Fowler writes, has become a significant institutional challenge for congressional efforts to perform effective oversight of national security policy. The “devaluation of committee specialization and expertise,” Fowler argues, is Congress’ “first barrier to effective partnership with the president.”
Term Limits for National Security Oversight
For committees with the broadest national security oversight responsibilities—such as intelligence, homeland security, foreign affairs, and armed services—the effects of term limits for chairs and ranking members have differed based on each particular committee’s rules and history. The rules governing the leadership and membership of these committees vary from panel to panel, most notably in the case of the intelligence oversight committees. As a general rule, however, limits on chairs and ranking members erode these panels’ abilities to effectively utilize experience and earned expertise.
Committee leadership term limits implemented by Republican lawmakers in the 1990s have not transformed many of the national security oversight committees in the ways that some might have expected. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others advocated for committee leadership term limits as a means of making Congress more accountable rather than risking the establishment of mini-fiefdoms. But early on, some Republican chairmen who had reached their term limits on one committee moved to another committee to assume leadership there. And in recent years, these rules have contributed to waves of Republican retirements in two successive congressional elections.
But these intended effects have been undermined by changes in homeland security oversight in Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, as well as by shifting party control in the chambers and other electoral disruptions. For instance, only one member of Congress, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) has chaired the House Committee on Homeland Security for three consecutive terms (for a total of six years), but the 2019 arrival of a Democratic majority in the House ensured that McCaul’s tenure would end even if the term limit rule did not exist. Meanwhile, then-Senators Joe Biden and John Kerry each ended their chairmanships of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) after only four years to assume positions as vice president and secretary of state, respectively. Those early departures make it difficult now for advocates of committee leadership term limits to argue conclusively that such rules have improved the management of the SFRC, because there have been so few cases that require the rules to be applied.
In the meantime, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) already restricts even ordinary members to four terms of service in six Congresses, under House rules. The House Committee on Homeland Security, meanwhile, is a relatively new body, which means that Republican term limit rules have only prevented one member —McCaul — from continued service as ranking member. Additionally, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) faces an added challenge in identifying or retaining experienced members, because its “Super-A” status in both party conferences’ rules means that senators on either the appropriations or finance panels ostensibly cannot serve on the SASC, though exceptions have occurred.
These national security committees offer several opportunities for changes that could help members deepen their expertise without challenging either party’s position on the issue of term limits for committee leaders.
Term-Limit Changes are Hard. So What’s the Alternative?
In December 2018, then-House minority leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her openness to term limits for incoming committee chairs as Democrats prepared to take control of the House. But amid a wider debate within the caucus about creating term limits for party leadership positions, a concrete proposal limiting the tenure of committee chairs failed to materialize. The conference has yet to take action on any of the term limit proposals, and by July 2019, advocates for the leadership limits stopped pressing the point.
The present reality suggests that neither major party appears ready to change or adopt new committee leadership term limits. At the same time, there are many opportunities to help deepen member expertise—the concern at the heart of the matter. Some of these reforms include removing the SFRC’s “Super-A” status in the Senate Republican Conference’s rules, giving ranking members on the House’s national security committees the privileges of vice-chairs, and eliminating term limits for membership on the HPSCI.
Senate rules currently prohibit members from serving on more than two “Class A” committees, considered the most significant in the chamber. Each party, however, has designated smaller sets of “Super-A” committees within these groupings, where party members may only serve on one of the panels. The Republican conference’s rules have designated the SFRC as a Super-A committee, while the Democratic conference’s rules do not. This discrepancy has limited the appeal of service on the SFRC for Republican senators, and experts have warned that designating the SFRC in this way has contributed to an overall decline in the average seniority of SFRC members since the 1940s. Changing Senate Republican Conference rules to re-categorize the SFRC as only a Class A committee would make the rules environment more permissive for Republicans to gain deeper experience in preparation for possibly wielding the gavel one day.
As part of a project at the author’s Center for a New American Security, national security legal expert Carrie Cordero called for the House Intelligence Committee to give the panel’s ranking member the privileges of a vice-chair, pointing to the Senate Intelligence Committee as an example of bipartisan oversight.
Could the same privileges, however, be extended to the ranking members of more House committees dealing with national security oversight? The change would benefit current Republican ranking members, because their conference’s rules restrict members to three terms as a committee chair or as a ranking member on the same committee. Expanding the scope of Cordero’s recommendation and providing ranking members on House national security committees with the authorities of vice-chairs would require Democratic support, but would also help these committees better utilize the experience of Republican ranking members. Optimistically, this change also might establish a precedent for more bipartisan cooperation – and therefore effectiveness — in a chamber where the majority party enjoys far wider powers.
Finally, the House should eliminate Intelligence Committee membership term limits. While the committees in both chambers featured term limits upon their creation in the 1970s, the 108th Congress eliminated member term limits in the Senate and adjusted restrictions on the House side. Meanwhile, the rest of the House committee’s members may serve for only four out of six consecutive terms of Congress (in other words, a member could not serve two terms, leave the committee for a term, and then serve three consecutive terms). Experts have called for the committee to follow the example of its Senate counterpart. This change would not shift any party conference’s rules, but would help some House members gain additional intelligence oversight experience.
Term limits for committee chairs and ranking members can prevent senior lawmakers from utilizing their acquired experience for the good of congressional oversight. The party conferences, regardless of chamber, affiliation, or presidential cajoling, remain unlikely to change their rules on committee leadership term limits.
But removing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s “Super-A” designation, granting the ranking members of national security oversight committee the privileges of vice-chairs, and eliminating the House Intelligence Committee’s membership term limits would help deepen members’ expertise and strengthen congressional national security oversight.
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