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GOP term limit proposal threatens to reopen Democratic rift

The Hill logo The Hill 4/19/2022 Mike Lillis
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Democratic leaders are hammering Republicans for considering term limits on committee leaders of both parties if the GOP flips control of the House next year — even as some moderates say it’s not such a bad idea.

The rift highlights a recurring predicament for Democratic leaders, caught between newer lawmakers keen to rise in the ranks and veteran members just as eager to keep their place in power. 

That fight was thrust into the spotlight when Punchbowl News reported Monday that GOP leaders, bullish about their chances of winning control of the House in November’s midterm elections, are considering a change in the chamber rules that would cap committee leadership at three terms.

Republicans have long maintained that same six-year limit for members of their own conference. The difference this time around is the idea that they’d apply it to House Democrats as well, even though they haven’t adopted such limits.

If the rule were to be adopted, a number of long-serving Democratic committee leaders — including Reps. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) of the Homeland Security panel; Adam Smith (Wash.) of Armed Services, Maxine Waters (Calif.) of Financial Services, Frank Pallone (N.J.) of Energy and Commerce, and Bobby Scott (Va.) of Education and Labor — would lose their top spots next year. 

The notion of imposing the limits on both parties has gained steam among Republicans this Congress after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her Democrats took the remarkable step of banishing two GOP lawmakers — Reps.  Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) — from their committee posts.

But the idea that Republicans would impose universal committee guidelines has prompted fierce dissent from some Democratic leaders, who maintain that Greene and Gosar were unique cases because they’d promoted violence against sitting Democratic lawmakers — incidents that proved particularly controversial in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. When Republican leaders declined to punish Greene and Gosar internally, Democrats say they were left with little choice but to do so themselves. 

Video: GOP Conference Chair urges voters to 'take a look' at 'this Republican Party' ahead of midterms (FOX News)


“MTG and Gosar were kicked off their committees because Kevin McCarthy is too weak and feckless to do the job leaders are supposed to do when their Members do reprehensible things,” a senior Democratic aide said Monday in an email. “Changing the entire seniority system for both caucuses is a vast overreach of a Majority’s power … like bringing a bazooka to a sword fight.”

Other Democrats had a decidedly different view. For some moderates, who have fought for years to install committee term limits on the Democratic side, the idea that Republicans would force the Democrats’ hand was a welcome one. 

“High functioning organizations become so by building strong benches and limiting the tenure of leaders, usually ~10 years,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and Problem Solvers Caucus, tweeted on Monday. “No matter which party controls Congress in ‘23, we should adopt term limits for committee chairs & get serious about developing a new generation of leaders.”

The term limit debate surrounding leadership of both the committees and the broader caucus has long been a contentious one among House Democrats, dividing lawmakers, and even top leaders, on the question of whether new limits should be installed. Proponents argue that term limits bring new faces and fresh ideas to the leadership ranks; opponents argue the merits of governing experience and the fruits of seniority. 

The opposition to new limits is particularly pronounced within the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), whose members — including Thompson, Waters and Scott — lead a handful of powerful committees. The CBC did not respond Monday to a request for comment. 

For McCarthy, who’s hoping to seize Pelosi’s gavel if the House changes hands next year, the notion of applying universal term limits in the next Congress marks a dramatic shift from just a few years ago. 

In 2019, McCarthy had reportedly proposed to relax the GOP’s internal rules to allow Republican committee leaders to remain in power beyond the three-term limit. One idea for doing so was to have majority chairmanships count against the six-year window, but not stints as ranking member in the minority. 

The push came after a 2018 cycle when Republicans lost control of the House amid a wave of retirements. The trend caught the attention of then-President Trump, who said the term limit rule had forced “real leaders” to run for the exits; he urged GOP leaders to eliminate the cap. After some discussion, the change was not adopted.

McCarthy’s office did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

The GOP’s position on term limits could soon be put to the test. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, is seeking a waiver to the GOP’s rules in order to keep that seat next year.

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