EDITORIAL: The GOP’s term-limits test

Public demand for change includes House committee chairmen

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Over the next few weeks, ownership of the House will transition from outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, to Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. That change can’t happen soon enough, but it won’t be easy. One of the first challenges for the presumptive speaker’s team will be selecting committee chairmen for the 112th Congress. The heads of those panels will influence the direction of the body for years to come.

Under rules articulated in 1994’s Contract With America, Republican members must relinquish committee gavels after serving six years in the top role of chairman or ranking member. Having spent four decades in the minority, the GOP had seen firsthand how committees became power bases for entrenched chairmen who were allowed to accumulate power for years on end. It was not unusual for the member next in line to die in office without ever landing the coveted chair. The GOP chairmanship limit has served an important purpose, even if in limited circumstances it means denying the best man for the job.

Three ranking members are seeking waivers that would allow them to serve as chairmen in January. Rep. David Dreier of California, for example, assumed the chairmanship of the Rules Committee in 1999 and serves as the top Republican. Although his time is up, few question the effectiveness of this Reagan-era conservative in an important job that comes with a seat at the leadership table.

Similarly, Texas Rep. Joe Barton would need a waiver to re-take control of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Mr. Barton has faced down the likes of Al Gore with scientific evidence that global warming is not caused by man’s carbon-dioxide emissions on the committee that will continue to play a key role in this issue. Should his waiver be denied, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan would be next in line. Mr. Upton is far more sympathetic to alarmist hysteria and played a key role in enacting the ban on real light bulbs that takes effect in 2012.

On the preceding page, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California argues that a number of limitations must be placed on the Appropriations Committee to rein in congressional spending. Mr. Lewis, a past champion of earmarks, is looking to become the head appropriator once again. It’s reasonable to assume his need for a waiver had some influence on his call for a reduction in overall spending. It’s hard to imagine a better argument in favor of term limits than that they encourage such accountability among the most powerful members in Congress.

It’s important that Mr. Boehner not dilute this benefit by granting waivers. He should instead stick to principles, even though doing so will spark nasty turf battles. With a clear voice, voters earlier this month shouted that they are fed up with business as usual. The success enjoyed by limited-government conservatives in the elections should encourage Mr. Boehner and the steering committee to bypass the seniority system and choose new chairmen who best reflect the country’s desire to reduce the size, scope and intrusiveness of government.

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