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House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp announced recently 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. 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.