Departures Promise Reshape House,
Departures Promise Reshape House, In his five years as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Representative Lamar Smith transformed the once almost invisible position into a powerful bully pulpit. From it, he tried to dismantle Obama-era climate policies, undermine scientific consensus and browbeat federal agencies for what he called scientific fraud.
But with his run as chairman nearly done, the 69-year-old Texan announced on Thursday that he would retire rather than seek a 17th term in Congress and a spot on the backbench. The news followed closely on the heels of another powerful Texas Republican facing the end of his chairmanship, Representative Jeb Hensarling of the Financial Services Committee, who said just two days earlier that this term would be his last.
With a year left before the midterm elections, the line of senior House Republicans heading for the exits continues to grow. Democrats argue that the wave of retirements will help them retake the House.
But regardless of who controls the chamber come January 2019, it is becoming increasingly clear that the House will be a different place, with some of its biggest personalities and powerful committee and subcommittee leaders leaving it behind.
“Part of our original thinking was there is always new talent, there are always new people,” said Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker who in 1994 instituted a three-term limit for top Republican committee positions. “I don’t know that having fresh blood is necessarily a bad thing.”
He did add, however: “It means we’ll have a few more tough races next year. It means you have less legislative experience, and it is much harder to manage.”
Beyond Mr. Smith and Mr. Hensarling, those seeking to depart include Representatives Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, a longtime member of leadership; Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who was the chairman of the high-profile Oversight Committee; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate but strong voice in Republican foreign policy; Diane Black of Tennessee, the first woman to lead the Budget Committee; and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, an Appropriations subcommittee chairman and the leader of House Republican moderates.
In all, 27 House Republicans have left, announced their retirements or declared that they were seeking higher office, compared with seven Democrats.
Those numbers are expected to rise in the coming weeks, as filing and fund-raising deadlines for next year’s election approach. Just how high could depend on the success or failure of Republicans’ latest legislative push, an ambitious rewrite of the federal tax code that Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin has pledged to get through the chamber in a matter of weeks. Should the effort fail, current and former lawmakers said, the number of demoralized Republicans leaving the chamber could jump.
“Each of us will have our own individual stories, but the promise of unified government is much more difficult, cumbersome and elusive than we ever thought it would be,” said Mr. Chaffetz, 50, who stepped down in June to take a job at Fox News. “You have people who are frustrated they can’t get their legislation to the finish line.”
Republican campaign strategists and congressional aides said they were watching at least two other committee chairmen facing term limits for potential retirements: Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, who is the chairman of the Transportation Committee, and Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Smith, a long-serving conservative and former Judiciary Committee chairman, said the decision to retire was largely personal. He wrote on Thursday that with his chairmanship ending and a new grandchild arriving, the time felt right to step aside after 16 terms.
“It is humbling living in a small apartment in Washington four nights a week,” he wrote. “And I seldom leave the office before late at night.”
Mr. Smith took over the science panel in 2013 and turned it into a powerful counterweight to Obama administration environmental policy. He subpoenaed scientists, accused federal agencies working on climate change of engaging in scientific fraud and supported stripping NASA of much of its climate change research. News of his departure has been as polarizing as his chairmanship.
Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, and a leading contrarian of the scientific consensus on global warming, said Mr. Smith’s retirement was a “huge loss to the science community.”
Scientists who have clashed with him, though, said they were hopeful that his departure would mark a return to a less adversarial body.
“Chairman Smith misused his position to subpoena federal researchers, sow doubt about scientific facts and push bills that would undermine the role of science in policy,” said Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“I hope that the next representative to serve as chair will return this committee to its intended purpose: strengthening America’s scientific enterprise, providing thoughtful and constructive oversight of federal policy and protecting the health and safety of the people Congress is supposed to serve,” he said.
Mr. Hensarling, 60, cut a less divisive but still influential figure on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Mr. Hensarling was one of the House’s leading lieutenants in the Republican fight to scale back the government’s role in regulating the economy. In June, the House passed Mr. Hensarling’s Financial Choice Act, which would dismantle many of the Obama-era banking regulations codified in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.
He also broke with big business in his crusade to eliminate the Export-Import Bank, the government agency that guarantees loans for the overseas customers of American exporters. That effort put him at odds with many members of his party, even on his committee.
The push has so far failed, but the agency’s largest transactions have been crippled for nearly two and a half years by conservative actions on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Hensarling, who has been in the House since 2003, wrote in a letter explaining his decision on Tuesday that he had already stayed longer in Washington than he had intended and the end of his chairmanship provided a natural break. And given his position, he will be a strong candidate for a lucrative next act in the private sector.
But his work in Washington was marked by frustration, as well. A sign of how difficult it has been to see legislation into law: His Financial Choice Act stands a slim chance of passing the Senate, where Republicans hold only a narrow majority.
Dick Armey, a former House majority leader under Mr. Gingrich and a fellow Texan, said Mr. Hensarling’s departure struck him as premature and a casualty of the sort that Republicans had brought upon themselves.
“I have no doubt he’s frustrated,” Mr. Armey said. “You can’t be as able and as innovative a guy as Jeb is without being frustrated right now.”
Others drew different lessons.
Representative Louie Gohmert, a Tea Party conservative who has clashed with party leadership over the years, said the departures of his fellow Texans, Mr. Smith and Mr. Hensarling, were merely part of the natural cycle of life in the House.
“Nobody lasts up here forever,” Mr. Gohmert said as he left the House floor on Thursday. “And if they do, they shouldn’t.”