Leaving the House: policy expertise

US Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, the term-limited chairman of the House Science Committee, is looking to find a new gavel - or to retire.

"I am a logical front-runner for the Transportation Committee, where I served for 22 years," he says. "I've been tested and proven under fire as a chairman."

He won't necessarily retire if he doesn't get the Transportation chairmanship, he adds. But the prospect that he might, yielding another high-level GOP retirement in the House, was part of a talk he had this week with President Bush aboard Air Force One. A Boehlert retirement would give House Republicans a 17th seat to defend this fall in midterm elections, compared with seven for Democrats.

It's not a seat Republicans are likely to lose, but every open seat takes resources - especially when control of the House is on the line. Mr. Boehlert says he will announce a decision within in the next week. "I can't play Hamlet forever," he says.

Other prominent GOP retirees include Reps. Jim Nussle of Iowa, chairman of the Budget Committee; Michael Oxley of Ohio, chairman of Financial Services; Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the International Relations panel; and Bill Thomas, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

By design, House Republicans are losing some heavy-hitting committee chairs this year. Since assuming control of the House in 1994, Republicans have been on a regimen of purging committee leaders after six years, with rare exceptions.

That reform broke with the regime under Democrats, in which committee chairs (and their often-autocratic staff) held sway over the House for 40 years. One result: Power swung back to party leaders. But it also left Republicans with an institutional memory leak.

"Despite all the problems with the old committee-era Congress, one of the virtues was that chairs were not only centers of power, but they held vast knowledge about public policy and the ... rules of the House," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. "Chairmen could be counted on to find ways to move legislation forward and to improve - or reform - programs, based on a deep knowledge of their history. Today ... chairmen do not have that kind of memory."

Representative Hyde, who says he would have retired even if he hadn't faced losing his chairmanship, calls term limits the "dumbing down of democracy." "I know it's attractive to younger members, but it drives out a wealth of experience. Democrats have shown a little more prudence than we did," he says.

Of the eight GOP members who are losing their chairmanships to term limits, four have already announced their retirements. Boehlert would be the fifth.

Among the retirees, Representatives Thomas and Oxley leave with a legacy of working out tough issues. Thomas navigated tax cuts every year of the Bush presidency. Oxley left his mark on securities reform in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom debacles.

"Term limits force the Republican Party to advance the back-benchers, which is often important to a party's vibrancy," says Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council. "If the Democrats gain power, it will be interesting to see if they impose term limits on chairmen."

Senior Democrats, for their part, aren't committing to the term-limit policy, if they did win back the House. "Our primary consideration is to take back the House. We'll deal with housekeeping once we do," says Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee.

While ranking Democrats now generally have more seniority on committees than do the committees' GOP chairmen, Democrats say they are finding other ways for younger members to make a mark, such as using a team approach to raise party issues on the floor.

A legacy of the 1994 Republican Revolution, "term limits of committee chairmen fostered competition for those slots, instead of being a right of tenure. It enforced party discipline," says Amy Walter, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report. "It balances risk and reward: The risk is that you lose some really good talent and open up a competitive congressional district. The reward is you have a flexible committee structure that can bend and move with the times."

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