Camp won't be able to see through his tax-reform proposal. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Camp won't be able to see through his tax-reform proposal. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp announced yesterday that he’ll be leaving Congress at the end of this term. The Michigan Republican recently put together a tax reform proposal that was widely hailed as at least a reasonable first step toward serious policy.

Camp was a victim of a rule imposed by House Republicans that limits the tenure of panel chiefs: three terms (six years), and that’s it. As Ed O’Keefe notes, Camp is the third term-limited chair to announce his retirement, after Doc Hastings of Washington (Natural Resources) and Buck McKeon of California (Armed Services).

The term limits were introduced by Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1994, and they still are a terrible idea. The most obvious reason is that legislating is difficult, requiring both experience and time. Term limits rob the House of the expertise developed by committee chairs, and deprives the chairs of sufficient time to finish what they start. Camp’s tax reform is only the most obvious example.

There's another reason term limits are awful. One of the big tensions in organizing Congress is the balance between what lawmakers want as individual representatives of their particular districts, and what they want as members of national political parties. As a rule, committees are the venue for exerting meaningful influence as individuals. Members of the House usually are happy to get additional influence when it comes to the things they care about most (by serving on committees with jurisdiction over those things) in exchange for having virtually no influence on everything else (beyond their floor vote).

So House committees function as protection against excessive partisan polarization of the House. And that’s accomplished via the committee chair's independence from the party leadership and caucus.

In the middle of the 20th century, when the House was underpolarized along party lines, the chamber was ruled by all-powerful committee chairs who weren't accountable to their parties at all. They were chosen according to a strict seniority system: the majority-party member who had served on the committee the longest got the job. If that chair didn’t want what the rest of his party wanted? Tough luck.1 On the other hand, many committees of that era worked in a highly bipartisan manner. Not only because the differences between the parties were smaller, but also because committees were concerned with the chair’s agenda, not the party’s.

That system changed with a series of reforms that began in the late 1950s and culminated in the defeat of older committee chairs by the Democratic caucus after the 1974 election. As a result, the independence of chairs (and the status of the minority party within committees) has atrophied. Term limits for chairs simply accelerate this erosion, making committees even less independent. After all, it's still difficult to remove a chair. And longtime chairs are rarely challenged as long as they avoid open conflict on hot-button issues, which allows them to establish some independence over time.Term limits end even that possibility.

It’s not clear that there’s a “correct” balance between committees and party in the House. But most scholars and observers believe that strict seniority gave too much power to the committee side, and that House Republicans now are too far on the party side.

Weakening the committees this much doesn't just encourage party polarization. It also weakens the House as an institution, by eliminating the expertise that only committees can develop. Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership can't have detailed expertise in the all the policy areas the federal government is involved in. That means they have to rely on outside party actors, interest group lobbyists, or (even in periods of divided government) the executive branch and the White House.

Power isn't zero-sum. If the House restores its committees, the overall capacity of the chamber (and Congress, and the federal government) can be increased. By destroying the committees, however, those capacities are reduced. For example, think of the clown show the House Oversight Committee has become under Chairman Darrell Issa. A leader who was stronger, more experienced and had more expertise would score plenty of partisan talking points for Republicans, but would also make the executive branch operate better by conducting serious oversight.

House Republican committee chair term limits are a mistake that harms Republicans and the House. Scrap ‘em, before they cost us even more talented legislators.

1 This also was also a major source of Jim Crow’s power in the House. Democrats had the majority, and Southern Democrats (from one-party Democratic states) tended to serve forever, and therefore held a disproportionate number of committee chairs, allowing them to bury civil rights legislation even when majorities of their party and of the House supported it.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.