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Senate Republicans get ready to play musical chairs

Regardless of what happens in the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans are set to play a game of musical chairs on some of the most important committees in the Senate. The decisions by Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to retire at the end of the year have created openings atop the Finance and Foreign Relations committees, respectively. The contests to succeed Hatch and Corker will have ripple effects that impact other committees directly or indirectly. Knowledge of the Republican Conference Rules is essential to understanding which senators are likely to have chairs when the music stops.

Past Practice

While Republicans informally follow the principle of seniority when selecting committee chairmen and ranking minority members, the party’s Conference Rules make clear that the top Republican need not be the panel’s most senior member. Rule V stipulates,

The Republican members of each standing committee at the beginning of each Congress shall select from their number a chairman or ranking minority member, who need not be the member with the longest consecutive service on such committee, subject to confirmation by the Conference.

One notable exception to the seniority rule was the contest between Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., over the top spot on the Foreign Relations Committee. After Republicans lost control of the Senate in the 1986 midterm elections, Helms decided to relinquish the top Republican spot on the Agriculture Committee, which he previously chaired, to claim the ranking member position on the Foreign Relations (Helms was the most senior Republican on the panel). Lugar countered that he should be allowed to continue as ranking member because he had chaired the committee in the previous Congress.

Pursuant to Rule V, the Republicans on Foreign Relations, voted to allow Lugar to retain his position as the top Republican in the new Congress. Helms subsequently challenged their decision in the full Conference (which must ratify the panel’s decision), staking his claim on his seniority. On Jan. 20, 1987, the Republican Conference voted 24-17 in favor of Helms. The conference also passed a resolution stating that the decision to allow Helms to claim the ranking member position was necessary “in order to preserve the vital principles of party unity and seniority.”

In 1995, Republicans voted to impose term limits on committee chairs/ranking members. Rule V(B) now stipulated, “A Senator shall serve no more than six years as chair and six years as ranking member of any standing committee, effective in January 1997.” Republicans clarified the rule in 2002 in response to a dispute prompted by the first round of chairs/ranking members being termed out by the rule. Rule V(B) now explicitly stipulates that senators may serve up to twelve years under the term limits for chairs/ranking members.

(1) A Senator shall serve no more than six years, cumulatively, as chairman of the same standing committee This limitation shall not preclude a Senator from serving for six years, cumulatively, as chairman of other committees, in series, if the Senator’s seniority and election by committee members provides the opportunity for such additional service.

(2) Service as ranking member shall also be limited to six years, cumulatively, in the same pattern as described in (1) above. Time served as ranking member shall not be counted as time served as chairman.

Once a Senator has completed six years as chairman of a committee, there will be no further opportunity for that Senator to serve as ranking member of that same committee if control of the Senate shifts and Republicans go into the minority. The opportunity for service as ranking member, outlined in (2) above, takes place either before or in interruption of the Senator’s six-year term as chairman, not after.

In 2016, Republicans again clarified the meaning of Rule V(B). Specifically, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., moved that “partial terms of one year or less [do] not count against the term limits specified in Rules 1 and 5 of the Conference rules.” Alexander’s motion is included in the Conference Rules under “Term Limits for Leadership and Committee Chairs.”

While the Helms-Lugar precedent still governs the process by which Republicans select their committee leaders, their 1995 decision to impose term limits on chairs/ranking members made a new scenario possible. In it, the top Republicans on committees could now be forced to relinquish their position if they have exhausted their chair/ranking member time under Rule V(B) and control of the Senate did not flip. In that scenario, another Republican would assume the top spot on the panel, thereby “bumping” their more senior colleagues. However, the more senior Republicans still technically maintained any chair/ranking member time that they had not used previously. Consequently, under the Helms-Lugar precedent, the senator would be entitled to bump the new top Republican if Senate control flipped.

For example, a Republican ranking member on Armed Services who has served six years in that position must relinquish the top spot on the panel to another Republican as long as the Senate remains in the minority. But that same Republican could invoke his or her seniority and bump their colleague from the top spot in the future if control of the Senate flipped and the Republicans were in the majority. At that point, the more senior Republican would have six years of chairman time under Rule V(B).

Un-adjudicated Precedents

Notwithstanding the Helms-Lugar precedent, the informal power of seniority in the committee selection process has weakened in recent years. For example, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee briefly considered blocking Arlen Specter, R-Pa., from assuming the chairmanship of that panel after the 2004 elections. (They were concerned about Specter’s views on social issues and how those views would impact President George Bush’s Supreme Court nominees during the upcoming Congress.) While the panel’s Republicans eventually backed Specter, they first received Specter’s assurances that he would support the president’s judicial nominees. Henceforth, ideology would be taken into consideration informally, along with seniority, in selecting a committee’s top Republican.

WARNER-INHOFE

While Specter’s experience on the Judiciary Committee reaffirmed the use of seniority as an informal norm, albeit on a weakened basis, John Warner’s, R-Va., attempt to claim the ranking member position on the Environment and Public Works Committee after the 2006 midterm elections demonstrated that Republicans do not always adhere to the informal norm. Like Helms did in 1986, Warner claimed the top spot on the panel based on his status as its most senior member. And like Lugar responded to Helms, Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., claimed the position based on the fact that he served as the top Republican on the panel in the previous Congress and further, that he still had six years of ranking member time remaining under the term-limits conference rule. Yet in contrast to Helms, Warner decided to drop his claim to the ranking member position. He was pressured by Republican leaders who wanted to avoid a potentially disruptive challenge to the informal norm of seniority.

The Warner-Inhofe dispute established a new, unadjudicated, precedent that essentially clarified the application of the term limits rule to the Helms-Lugar precedent. Under this new precedent, it was assumed that a senator would be allowed to finish their entire term (defined as all of the chairman and ranking member time they were permitted under the rule; 12 years, if served concurrently) once they started. In other words, they could not be bumped by a senator more senior who had chairman or ranking member time remaining.

GRASSLEY-SESSIONS & ENZI-SESSIONS

Republicans established two precedents more recently that contradicted the Inhofe-Warner precedent. The top Republican position on the Judiciary Committee was vacated after Specter switched parties in 2010. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was the next most senior Republican on the panel and thus in-line to take over after Specter. However, Grassley was serving at the time as the ranking member on Finance and was not ready to move to Judiciary. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was the next most senior Republican on the panel after Grassley, and thus informally eligible to assume the ranking member position.

Yet in contrast to Warner and Inhofe, Grassley and Sessions reached an informal understanding that Sessions would step aside after the 2010 elections and allow Grassley to assume the ranking member position if the Republicans did not win a majority in the Senate (which would allow Grassley to serve as Finance chair). A similar situation occurred on the Budget Committee when Sessions agreed to step aside for Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who was the more senior member on the panel, even though Sessions had already started his time as the committee’s top Republican.

The 116th Congress

Notwithstanding these conflicting precedents, the Republican rosters for each committee are listed below. A full list of the Senate’s committee assignments for the 115th Congress can be accessed here. Republicans who are retiring from the Senate have been removed from the committee rosters below. Each panel’s top Republican is specified. The chair/ranking member time they have remaining is specified in parentheses. The remaining chair/ranking member time for any subsequent senators who could conceivably ascend to their panel’s top position (based on current practice) in the 116th Congress is also listed.

NOTABLE HIGHLIGHTS

John McCain’s, R-Ariz., passing last summer caused a change in the top Republican position on Armed Services (McCain/Inhofe). Similarly, Thad Cochran’s, R-Miss., retirement in April 2018 caused changes in the top Republican positions on Appropriations (Cochran/Shelby) and Rules and Administration (Shelby/Blunt). Note: Under the 2016 Alexander motion (see above), Shelby’s year as Rules and Administration chairman in 2017 counts against his overall term limit on that panel.

Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., is senior to Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee and is thus entitled to bump him under the Helms-Lugar, Grassley-Sessions, and Enzi-Sessions precedents. Alexander is entitled to serve out his time as the panel’s top Republican under the Warner-Inhofe precedent. A contest appears unlikely, however, as Enzi chose not to bump Alexander in the 115th Congress.

Grassley’s decision to stay at Judiciary or move to Finance will impact the top positions on both panels, as well as the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee. If he remains at Judiciary, Mike Crapo, R-Wyo., will likely move to Finance. That creates an opening on the banking panel that will likely be filled by Pat Toomey, R-Pa. If Grassley moves to Finance, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will likely assume the top Republican position on Judiciary.

The top position on Commerce, Science, and Transportation could be vacated by John Thune, R-S.D., if he makes a successful bid for party whip. Conference Rule V(A) prohibits the Republican floor leader and whip from serving concurrently as chair/ranking member. Under this scenario, Roger Wicker, R-Miss., would likely assume the top spot on Commerce.

Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, will be forced to relinquish the top spot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee if Republicans lose the majority (she has already served six years as ranking member). Under that scenario, John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is next in line to assume the panel’s top Republican position. However, Barrasso is currently serving as the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. If he decides to stay in that position, Jim Risch, R-Idaho, would be next in line. However, Risch is next in line on Foreign Affairs (due to Corker’s retirement). If he decides to take the top spot there, Mike Lee, R-Utah, would be next in line for the ranking member position.

If Barrasso moves to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee (see above), Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., is likely to assume the top position on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

If Lee assumes the top position on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Tom Cotton, Ark., is likely to be the top Senate Republican on the Joint Economic Committee.

(Note: The chair/ranking member time they have remaining is specified in parentheses.)

AGRICULTURE, NUTRITION, AND FORESTRY
  • Current Chairman: Pat Roberts (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Mitch McConnell
  • John Boozman
  • John Hoeven
  • Joni Ernst
  • Chuck Grassley
  • John Thune
  • Steve Daines
  • David Perdue
  • Deb Fischer
  • Cindy Hyde-Smith
APPROPRIATIONS
  • Current Chairman: Richard Shelby (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Mitch McConnell
  • Lamar Alexander
  • Susan Collins
  • Lisa Murkowski
  • Lindsey Graham
  • Roy Blunt
  • Jerry Moran
  • John Hoeven
  • Shelley More Capito
  • James Lankford
  • Steve Daines
  • John Kennedy
  • Marco Rubio
  • Cindy Hyde-Smith
ARMED SERVICES
  • Current Chairman: Jim Inhofe (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Roger Wicker
  • Deb Fischer
  • Tom Cotton
  • Mike Rounds
  • Joni Ernst
  • Thom Tillis
  • Dan Sullivan
  • David Perdue
  • Ted Cruz
  • Lindsey Graham
  • Ben Sasse
  • Tim Scott
BANKING, HOUSING, AND URBAN AFFAIRS
  • Current Chairman: Mike Crapo (chair: 4 years; ranking member 4 years)
  • Richard Shelby (termed out- no longer eligible for chair/ranking member)
  • Pat Toomey (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Dean Heller
  • Tim Scott
  • Ben Sasse
  • Tom Cotton
  • Mike Rounds
  • David Perdue
  • Thom Tillis
  • John Kennedy
  • Jerry Moran
COMMERCE, SCIENCE, AND TRANSPORTATION
  • Current Chairman: John Thune (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Roger Wicker (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Roy Blunt
  • Ted Cruz
  • Deb Fischer
  • Jerry Moran
  • Dan Sullivan
  • Dean Heller
  • Jim Inhofe
  • Mike Lee
  • Ron Johnson
  • Shelley Moore Capito
  • Cory Gardner
  • Todd Young
ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES
  • Current Chairman: Lisa Murkowski (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 0 years)
  • John Barrasso (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Jim Risch (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Mike Lee (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Steve Daines
  • Cory Gardner
  • Lamar Alexander
  • John Hoeven
  • Bill Cassidy
  • Rob Portman
  • Shelley Moore Capito
ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
  • Current Chairman: John Barrasso (chair: 4 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Jim Inhofe (termed out- no longer eligible for chair/ranking member)
  • Shelley Moore Capito (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • John Boozman
  • Roger Wicker
  • Deb Fischer
  • Jerry Moran
  • Mike Rounds
  • Joni Ernst
  • Dan Sullivan
  • Richard Shelby
FINANCE
  • Current Chairman: Orrin Hatch (retiring)
  • Chuck Grassley (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 0 years)
  • Mike Crapo (chair: 6 years; ranking member 6 years)
  • Pat Roberts
  • Mike Enzi
  • John Cornyn
  • John Thune
  • Richard Burr
  • Johnny Isakson
  • Rob Portman
  • Pat Toomey
  • Dean Heller
  • Tim Scott
  • Bill Cassidy
FOREIGN RELATIONS
  • Current Chairman: Bob Corker (retiring)
  • Jim Risch (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Marco Rubio (chair: 6 years; ranking member 6 years)
  • Ron Johnson
  • Cory Gardner
  • Todd Young
  • John Barrasso
  • Johnny Isakson
  • Rob Portman
  • Rand Paul
HEALTH, EDUCATION, LABOR, AND PENSIONS
  • Current Chair: Lamar Alexander (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Mike Enzi (chair: 4 years; ranking member: 0 years)
  • Richard Burr
  • Johnny Isakson
  • Rand Paul
  • Susan Collins
  • Bill Cassidy
  • Todd Young
  • Pat Roberts
  • Lisa Murkowski
  • Tim Scott
HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS
  • Current Chairman: Ron Johnson (chair: 2 years; ranking member 6 years)
  • Rob Portman
  • Rand Paul
  • James Lankford
  • Mike Enzi
  • John Hoeven
  • Steve Daines
JUDICIARY
  • Current Chairman: Chuck Grassley (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 2 years)
  • Lindsey Graham
  • John Cornyn
  • Mike Lee
  • Ted Cruz
  • Ben Sasse
  • Mike Crapo
  • Thom Tillis
  • John Kennedy
BUDGET
  • Current Chairman: Mike Enzi (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Chuck Grassley (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Mike Crapo (chair: 6 years; ranking member 6 years)
  • Lindsey Graham
  • Pat Toomey
  • Ron Johnson
  • David Perdue
  • Cory Gardner
  • John Kennedy
  • John Boozman
  • Tom Cotton
RULES AND ADMINISTRATION
  • Current Chairman: Roy Blunt (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Mitch McConnell (floor leader)
  • Lamar Alexander (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Pat Roberts (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Richard Shelby (chair: 5 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Ted Cruz (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Shelley Moore Capito
  • Roger Wicker
  • Deb Fischer
  • Cindy Hyde-Smith
SMALL BUSINESS AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
  • Current Chairman: Jim Risch (chair: 4 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Marco Rubio (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Rand Paul (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Tim Scott
  • Joni Ernst
  • Jim Inhofe
  • Todd Young
  • Mike Enzi
  • Mike Rounds
  • John Kennedy
VETERANS’ AFFAIRS
  • Current Chairman: Johnny Isakson (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Jerry Moran (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • John Boozman
  • Dean Heller
  • Bill Cassidy
  • Mike Rounds
  • Thom Tillis
  • Dan Sullivan
INDIAN AFFAIRS
  • Current Chairman: John Hoeven (chair: 4 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • John Barrasso
  • Lisa Murkowski
  • James Lankford
  • Steve Daines
  • Mike Crapo
  • Jerry Moran
SELECT COMMITTEE ON ETHICS
  • Current Chairman: Johnny Isakson (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 0 years)
  • Pat Roberts (chair: 4 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Jim Risch
SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE
  • Current Chairman: Richard Burr (chair: 2 years; ranking member 6 years)
  • Jim Risch
  • Marco Rubio
  • Susan Collins
  • Roy Blunt
  • James Lankford
  • Tom Cotton
  • John Cornyn
SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON AGING
  • Current Chairman: Susan Collins (chair: 2 years; ranking member: 4 years)
  • Tim Scott
  • Thom Tillis
  • Richard Burr
  • Marco Rubio
  • Deb Fischer
JOINT ECONOMIC COMMITTEE
  • Current Chairman: Mike Lee (chair: 4 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Tom Cotton (chair: 6 years; ranking member: 6 years)
  • Ben Sasse
  • Rob Portman
  • Ted Cruz
  • Bill Cassidy

This piece originally appeared in Legislative Procedure on November 5, 2018.

Filed Under:
Topics: Committees & Caucuses
Tags: James Wallner