Coming Around on Term Limits for Committee Chairmen

On a social scientific level, I have tended to be opposed to most forms of term limits, whether they are intended to restrict the number of terms one can serve in office or even if they just mandate turnover among congressional committee chairs and the like. After all, if someone not only has experience but also has strong backing, whether from the voters in his district or the fellow members of his caucus, why should he not remain in his position? What's more, battles over term limits in recent years have been more about anti-government activists trying to neuter the power of government than almost anything else, and term limits inside Congress have largely served as a way for Republicans to squeeze more dollars out of their members than to actually improve policy outcomes.

But the strikingly bad behavior of a number of Democratic committee chairs, even in the first few weeks of the 110th Congress, has begun to sway me to the other side of the issue of term limits, if only for chairmanships of congressional committees. Democratic chairmen, particularly those who wielded immense power in a previous era, have come into their new positions with a sense of entitlement to forward their own political agendas, even at the expense of their party. Senate finance chair Max Baucus, for one, tacked billions in tax cuts for business interests on to minimum wage legislation in the theory that a clean bill, like the one that passed overwhelmingly in the House, could not garner the 60 votes in the Senate to invoke cloture. In another example, House energy chair John Dingell, whose 52 years in the chamber make him its second-longest serving member in history, has done almost everything in his power -- including teaming up with his ranking member, the ultra-conservative "Smoky" Joe Barton -- to thwart Speaker Nancy Pelosi's move to create a special select committee on global warming. And this was lot Dingell's only turf spat in recent days. Alex Bolton has the details of another in today's issue of The Hill.

Two committee chairmen with jurisdiction over the hot issue of data security, Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), have reached an impasse. They even disagree on whether they disagree, illustrating another growing pain for House Democrats in their new roles in the majority.

Frank had suggested creating a multi-committee task force to draft a single bill to address data security. The issue, with which Republicans wrestled unsuccessfully last year, became more prominent this month when discount retailers Marshalls and T.J. Maxx -- both owned by the same parent firm, Massachusetts-based TJX Companies -- revealed that they potentially had lost to theft millions of customers' financial information.

Frank said the task force would help avoid a stalemate later this session when Democratic leaders prepare legislation for a floor vote. But Frank said he dropped the idea after Dingell objected. Dingell also has opposed a special committee on energy policy that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently proposed to her colleagues.

I'm sure that John Dingell has done a lot of good things over his career, but that does not warrant him trying to stake out domain over any and every issue that potentially comes in his path -- particularly if he is either slowing progress towards a bill favored by most Democrats (as in the case of a data security bill) or is in fact fighting against the will of his party (as in the case of raising fuel economy standards). While it is certainly true that Dingell owes his seat in Congress to the voters of his district, not to the leadership (or even membership) of his party's caucus in the House, he does owe his standing within the chamber at least somewhat to his party (if the Democrats had not won on November 7, he would still be a rather meaningless ranking minority member on the energy panel). As such, he has at least somewhat of a duty to work with his party rather than against it.

But it goes beyond just Rep. Dingell, or even Sen. Baucus and a handful of others. Having the potential to serve as chairman of a committee for a decade -- or even two (2007 will mark Dingell's 16th year as chairman of his committee, 14 of which were uninterrupted) -- leads to the very situation we stand in today, where some important legislation is being stalled or blocked because of the will of just one or a handful of members.

I am not suggesting that the Speaker (or the Majority Leader in the Senate, for that matter) should be vested with the power to get rid of committee chairmen who are not sufficiently willing to raise money for their fellow party members, as the Republicans so notably did during their dozen years atop the heap on Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, if committee chairmen, both in the House and the Senate, knew that they had just six years to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish -- that their control over their domain was finite, not unending -- I do believe that Congress would run more smoothly and good, progressive legislation would stand a better chance at passing. As such, I have to agree with Markos that the term limits for committee chairmen that Nancy Pelosi shepherded in for the first time in a Democratic Congress (to my knowledge) should endure, no matter how stridently the long-serving members of the party fight back.

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Nancy Pelosi, Wildly Popular Speaker of the House

Last week when CNN released polling that found Nancy Pelosi's approval rating to be above 50 percent and her disapproval rating in the low 20s, I marvelled at her relative popularity, both in comparison with President Bush, whose approval rating was 16 points lower than hers in the polls, and with the last high-profile House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, whose approval spread at the same point in his tenure (January, 1995) was significantly lower at 39 approve/35 disaprove.

Of course one poll does not make a trend. It might not even, in and of itself, represent a reliable data point given the inherent potential for statistical error in representative surveys. For that reason, the release of two subsequent polls in recent days by well-established national pollsters showing similar results is rather newsworthy.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, in the field January 16 through 19 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, pegged Speaker Pelosi's approval rating at 54 percent, with just 25 percent disapproving. This compares with an 43 percent approval rating for Congress, overall (up 7 points from immediately before the election), President Bush's 33 percent approval rating (with 65 percent disapproving), and the 40 percent approval rating (and 48 percent disapproval rating) Newt Gingrich hit in the same poll in late January 1995 (or his high-water mark for the poll -- 41 percent approve/44 percent disapprove -- achieved twice in the summer of 1998).

Also in the field late last week (1/16-18; MoE +/- 3.0%) was an Ipsos poll commissioned by the Associated Press and AOL News. Like The Post/ABC poll, the AP/AOL poll found that many more Americans approve of Speaker Pelosi than do of the President, too. Specifically, 51 percent approve of Pelosi, with 34 percent disapproving, whereas just 36 percent approve of the President and 61 percent disapprove.

In short, it's clear that Nancy Pelosi is a widly popular Speaker of the House, her high ratings hitting historically high levels. And, just to echo Markos, these numbers just underscore the fact that no one should pay heed to the Beltway bloviators who were so quick to write of Pelosi's Speakership back in December -- even before she was sworn in.

Below the fold... Do you approve of the job Nancy Pelosi is doing as Speaker of the House of Representatives?

Analyzing the First 100 Hours

Bumped - Matt

This week the House of Representatives finished its "First 100 Hours" agenda in a total of 42 legislative hours.  They passed 6 bills they'd laid out as their initial priorities (Speaker Pelosi has declared her intention to have the House produce and pass global warming legislation by July 4th), and I wanted to take a look back on who voted how on these bills.

HR 1, implementing most 9/11 Commission recommendations (vote)
HR 2, minimum wage increase (vote)
HR 3, stem cell research (vote)
HR 4, negotiating Rx drug prices (vote)
HR 5, student loan interest rates (vote)
HR 6, repealing Big Oil tax breaks (vote)

The Democratic House caucus voted unanimously for 4 of these 6 bills.  The two votes where some Dems voted no were on stem cell research and repealing tax breaks for oil and gas (the bill would also punish companies who don't renegotiate leases the government screwed up in 1998-99).  There were 16 Democrats voting against the stem cell bill, and 4 who voted against the oil tax break bill.  Even on HR 3, the vote in which the Democrats were most divided, Democrats voted 216-16 (or 93% to 7%) in favor.  A majority in the House is 218, but enough members didn't vote that the Democrats' votes alone would have sufficed to pass the bill.  In fact, that is true of all 6 bills.  By historical standards, the Democrats exhibited an extraordinary, even extreme, degree of party unity on these votes.

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Pelosi's Committee Coup

Behold the swirling mass of intrigue, molded by deep-seated loyalties and driven by complex motivations. Of course, I'm talking 'bout the U.S. House of Reps. Pelosi's push this week to create a new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was a fascinating peek into the inner-workings of the House and the relationships between the Speaker, Democratic leadership, and the rest of her caucus. Yep, the new panel lacks legislative jurisdiction, but is a platform for raising the profile of climate change. As to be expected, John Dingell -- chairman of the committee that loses ground in this new move and the representative from suburban Detroit -- found this whole reorganization business just simply unnecessary. For the record, though, he objects to the plan on the grounds that it undermines the idea that committees are supposed to serve as long-standing repositories of congressional expertise. Motivating Pelosi? The knowledge that Dingell isn't too keen on the idea that there is a scientific consensus on global warming; the Speaker seems to really want movement on climate change this Congress, and this move puts pressure all around to squeeze something out of the House in the near future.

But oh, there's so much more in this mix! For example: Dingell's chief of staff was a lobbyist and strategist at DaimlerChrysler as late as November. Dingell's wife is the executive director of government relations at GM. Dingell favored Hoyer over Pelosi in the Whip's race in 2001. Pelosi backed Dingell's primary challenger Lynne Rivers in 2002. One House chairman, Henry Waxman is of the opinion that "existing committees can deal effectively with global warming," but worth keeping in mind is that Waxman is next in line for the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee should the 81 year-old Dingell ever vacate the House.

Just in terms of structure, it's hard not to see this as an end run by Pelosi around the House's committee system and its chairmen. There just doesn't seem to be a whole lot of precedent for what she's done. (Of course, one might argue that there's not a whole lot of precedent for global warming.) The last "non-permanent select committee" was created by Republican leadership to blunt criticism after Hurricane Katrina. The one before that, Homeland Security, was created in the wake of September 11 and soon evolved into full standing committee. This new panel isn't as obviously event-driven and isn't yet designated permanent. Is the idea for it to be short-lived and for climate change and energy independence to revert back to Energy and Commerce when, say, Waxman pries the gavel out of Dingell's hands?

All in all, fascinating to watch Pelosi put her mark on the institution. She certainly doesn't seem to be afraid to shake things up, and we'll see what the caucus' tolerance is for being shaken.

Pelosi's Approval Rating Tops 50 Percent, Bests Bush's By 16 Points

The details of the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey are beginning to trickle out, and like the USA Today/Gallup poll released today, it finds President Bush's approval rating in the mid-30s -- 34 for Gallup, 35 for ORC.

But more interestingly the poll, which is available in part from Hotline's Wakeup Call (and which I have independently confirmed), shows that 51 percent of Americans approve of the job being done by new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, compared with just 22 percent who disapprove. It's certainly true that these numbers can, at least in part, be chalked up to the positive coverage Pelosi received upon becoming the first female Speaker and the House Democrats' success in passing popular legislation in the opening hours of this Congress.

Yet this, alone, cannot explain these impressive numbers. Looking back to the last time that power changed hands in the House of Representatives back in 1995, then there was an equally recognizable if not even more well known new Speaker of the House who came in with a series of poll-tested promises that had fairly wide support among the American people.

Polling from January of that year (Gallup, 1/16-18/95) showed that, indeed, a plurality of Americans approved of the job Newt Gingrich was performing as Speaker. But the margin was tiny -- 39 percent approving, 35 percent disapproving -- and by early February (Gallup, 2/3-5/95) Gringrich's numbers slipped deep into negative territory, with 38 percent approving and 48 disapproving. Asking a slightly different question that month, The Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of Americans viewed Gingrich favorably while 37 percent viewed him unfavorably. And according to Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling, Gingrich hit his high water mark for support in April of that year when he posted a positive rating of 31 percent and a negative rating of 36 percent.

With numbers like these, it's clear that Americans' support for Nancy Pelosi, and indeed the new Democratic Congress as well, is not just about having faith in new leadership over Congress. What's more, it's not just about new blood as Speaker. It's about something far more profound than that. Americans like what Nancy Pelosi is doing as Speaker and the direction in which she, and the Democratic Party, are leading this country. While she and her party still have their work cut out for them in the weeks and months to come, they currently stand with as strong of a base within the American people as any recent Congress -- if not more so -- a fact that should instill in them a sense of fortitude and resolve as they go up against a wildly unpopular President and Republican Party.

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