by Jonathan Singer, Wed Jan 24, 2007 at 10:14:57 AM EST
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.