Behind-the-scenes battle for gavel on Hill

Term limits for House committee chairs put 11 key posts up for grabs. Competition is fiercer than ever.

While public attention is focused on the presidential race that will not end, another contest now under way will help shape the direction of America for the next two years: the fight for committee chairmanships on Capitol Hill.

This battle for the gavel is Washington's shadow election. No headlines, no tracking polls, no official slate of candidates. The players deal in the purest currency of power politics - persuasion, seniority, and cash. And this year, the campaign for chairs is being waged more openly and vigorously than anyone can remember.

What makes the season such a free-for-all are term limits on how long a member of Congress can hold a committee gavel. Gone are the days when all-powerful committee chairmen often hunkered down in their chairs for decades. This year, the limits have forced 11 of 17 committee chairmen to surrender their seats. Five of them opted to leave Congress; others are lobbying for a new leadership assignment.

"These battles are open, transparent," says James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University here.

A primary bartering tool, Mr. Thurber says, is money. "Campaigns are so expensive that people need money, and the way to build loyalty is being able to help colleagues with money."

Committee chairmen have long held extraordinary power on the Hill. Traditionally, they could decide what bills make it to the floor, what issues were worth investigating, and how to deploy staff resources. They could make or break an ambitious newcomer. And only a king-size scandal could topple them.

But when GOP insurgents took over the House in 1994, one of their first acts was to cobble this power. Republican lawmakers eliminated three full committees and 31 subcommittees. They scrapped the seniority system for a new selection process that included considerations such as party loyalty and fundraising.

Most important, they limited committee chairs to three two-year terms.

On Wednesday, Republicans in caucus voted to keep this six-year limit, despite the forced exit of some of their most well-known chairmen. That decision opened the floodgates.

Much of the battle has been waged in the trenches of fundraising. A report listing lawmakers who have given the most campaign contributions to their colleagues reads like a "Who's Who" of party leaders or aspirants.

"Money is power, and it's especially true if you're trying to win a committee chairmanship," says Steven Weiss at the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which produced the report.

Here are some key battles:

The contest to lead the powerful Ways and Means Committee is testing the importance of seniority in the new Congress. Under the old rules, the post almost certainly would have gone to 16-term veteran Rep. Philip Crane of Illinois. But Bill Thomas of California has been mounting a high-profile challenge based on his expertise on healthcare issues. Both men are top fundraisers who gave heavily to GOP colleagues during Campaign 2000.

The outcome in the Commerce Committee could set a precedent for future party-switchers. Rep. Michael Oxley of Ohio and ex-Democrat W.J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana are in a high-profile fight for a chair that determines key outcomes on telecommunications. Both men sponsored monster fundraisers at the Republican National Convention.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich had promised Representative Tauzin he would carry his seniority with him when he switched to the Republican Party in 1995. Tauzin spokesmen say the outcome will send a message to future party-switchers.

If seniority determined the chair of the Banking and Financial Services Committee, the gavel would go to Marge Roukema of New Jersey, the longest-serving woman in the House. But Rep. Richard Baker of Louisiana is campaigning on his "conservative approach to government" - and appended a seven-page "fundraising activity report" to a letter to members last month, documenting his contributions to the party this election cycle.

The House Armed Services Committee is also being slugged out in the trenches of fundraising. Insiders give the edge to Rep. Bob Stump of Arizona. But rival Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania contributed $1.6 million to GOP candidates this year, including housing and entertaining more than 100 members and their families at the Old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during the Republican National Convention this year.

"Money is regrettably a key factor in committee assignments," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a sponsor of campaign-finance reform legislation.

"Still, I look forward to the day when we are not forced to raise so much money," he adds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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