Early retirements: the debate over committee leader term limits

Twenty-three House Republicans have announced their retirements or intent to seek another office ahead of the 2020 election. Four retiring representatives are ranking members of a committee, and all four retiring or resigning Republican senators are committee chairs. A range of factors can sway members of Congress to retire, such as the likelihood of reelection and whether their party is in the majority. One under-looked factor is that unlike the Democratic Party, the Republican Party limits how many years a representative or senator can serve as committee leader.

The Republican Party has imposed term limits on committee leaders since 1992. After the consequential 1994 midterm elections, committee leader term limits were incorporated into the official House rules. In the lead-up to the 1994 midterms, President Bill Clinton’s unpopularity fueled Republican efforts to regain the House. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA-6) became a leading advocate for the GOP’s “Contract with America,” which included reforms to congressional rules such as committee leader term limits. Advocates saw term limits as a way to reduce the influence of seniority and bring new ideas into the GOP.

After Republicans won the House, Gingrich became Speaker of the House and instituted committee leader term limits. The Republican Party has retained these limits over the years, although the Democratic majority removed the limits from the official House rules in 2009-2010, and again in 2019.

Current rules
In the House, Republicans can serve for a maximum of three Congresses, or six years, as chair or ranking member of a committee or subcommittee (other than the Rules Committee, which is exempted). By contrast, Senate Republicans can serve a separate six years as ranking member, so long as they have not already served their six-year term as chair. 

Members of Congress can still chair other committees after being term-limited out of leadership on one committee; some have speculated that after reaching the limit as Small Business Committee chair next year, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH-1) could serve as Judiciary Committee chair were the position to become open. In rare cases, the GOP Steering Committee has granted waivers to committee leaders to serve past six years. In 2012, former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-1) was granted a waiver to continue serving as the Republican Budget Committee leader, both because of his ideological leadership in the GOP and the fact that the Ways and Means chairmanship was not open at the time.

Term limit trade-offs
Term limits can be a mechanism for career advancement among less experienced policymakers. Some Democrats have criticized their party’s lack of term limits for this very reason. Former Democratic Caucus Chair John Larson (D-CT-01) said in 2015, “A number of people would say Republicans have struck a better formula for advancement.” 

In contrast, term limits may also encourage committee leaders to retire earlier. When committee leaders reach the term limit, they may decide to retire rather than return as rank-and-file members. Out of 55 total Republican committee leaders who had reached the maximum terms as of 2017, 19 decided to retire at the end of their final allowable term as leader—35% of all outgoing committee leaders. The number of retirements in a given congressional election matters, since a party generally has a harder time winning an open seat than running with an incumbent.

Term limits may be at play in some of the retirements going into 2020. Three of the four retiring House ranking members would be term-limited at the end of the 116th Congress. All four retiring or resigning Senate chairs would be term-limited, although Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), chair of Veterans’ Affairs, is resigning for health reasons. Other committee leaders who could decide to retire ahead of reaching their leadership term limits in 2021 include Ways and Means Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX-8) and Small Business Ranking Member Steve Chabot (R-OH-1).

Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR-2) is the only retiring Republican committee leader who would not be term-limited in 2021. Walden’s retirement announcement caused Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL-15) to briefly reconsider his own retirement, as Shimkus is high-ranking in Energy and Commerce and could have a shot at committee leadership. Although Shimkus ultimately decided to retire, this highlights how retirement decisions of committee leaders affect the career decisions of other high-ranking committee members.

Some argue that term limits make committees less effective, as committee leaders are better positioned to pass major legislation after multiple terms of experience. According to the Legislative Effectiveness Project—which measures legislators’ ability to advance sponsored bills through the legislative process—committee chairs are six times more effective than average committee members during their fourth to sixth terms, but are only 4.5 times more effective during their first through third terms. Term limits may force chairs to leave their positions before reaching maximum productivity.

Even choosing to stay in Congress once being term-limited could result in decreased effectiveness. As of 2017, 12 of the 17 term-limited committee leaders who had stayed as rank-and-file members had a lower-than-average effectiveness level among their party.

Signs of change?
In 2018, Democrats discussed whether to leave the GOP’s term limits in place in the full House rules, but ultimately voted to remove the limits. Some Democratic opponents of term limits have argued that House Democrats’ current system is a helpful way for members of the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses in safely Democratic seats to retain leadership positions and advance. In fact, Democratic rules have allowed some committee leaders to serve well past six years: Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS-2) has served as chair or ranking member of the committee since 2005. Whether this has come at the expense of advancement for younger members of Congress remains a point of contention.

Amid a growing number of 2020 retirements, House Republicans recently debated whether to relax their term limits. Some suggested House Republicans should adopt the GOP Senate policy of allowing senators to serve for six years as ranking member and an additional six years as chair. President Trump has even chimed in on the subject, tweeting that the GOP should relax its rules to prevent early retirements.

Despite the demands of the president, term limit rules are not likely to change in the near future, as Republican leaders have rejected the idea. This disparity in the rules of the two major parties likely will persist and continue to affect both the retirement rate and the ability of legislators to advance in the ranks.

To learn more about committee leader term limits and their impact on retirements, download National Journal’s congressional rules and procedures primer and 2020 congressional retirement tracker.