Committee Chairs Will Shift No Matter Which Party Controls Congress

Congressional committee chairs are facing tough reelection races.

Sept. 12, 2010 -- The tumultuous midterm elections have put more than a dozen powerful House committee and subcommittee leaders in the danger zone this year, threatening to alter the landscape of Congress whether or not Democrats maintain their majority.

With less than eight weeks to go before Election Day, a growing number of senior Democrats find themselves in tight races, from South Carolina Rep. John Spratt, a 28-year-veteran who heads the House Budget Committee, to Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, chairman of a subcommittee that oversees spending on military construction projects.

Committee chairpersons, who generally represent "safe" seats in elections, wield significant power in Congress. The outcomes of their races this year could affect President Obama's priorities — including plans on energy and the economy — even if Democrats stay in charge.

In an election year defined by voter angst at incumbents, the committee and subcommittee leaders in competitive contests face an especially tough challenge: How to tout their clout while not coming across as Washington insiders.

"This year more than others, it's a doubled-edged sword," Stuart Rothenberg of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report said of chairmanships. "Many people think Washington is broken. So having clout and influence is not what it has been in the past."

The result of the contests will help decide whether Democrats can maintain their House majority despite Gallup and other polls that show discontent is on par with 1994 and 2006, when voters dumped the party in control of Congress. Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to be "very enthusiastic" about voting, according to a Sept. 7 Gallup Poll.

Democrats have a 77-seat House edge and control 59 of 100 Senate votes.

In South Carolina, Spratt is running for re-election as budget deficits have become a campaign issue. His Republican rival, state lawmaker Michael "Mick" Mulvaney, has tried to tie him to broader Democratic policies, including the health care law, which Spratt supported. In turn, Spratt has focused on job creation.

"The congressman is running on his service to the district," said Spratt campaign manager Wil Brown, "not only as a chairman but (also) his record of bringing jobs to the district."

In Missouri, Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, a 17-term lawmaker who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, is in a competitive race against Vicky Hartzler, a former GOP state lawmaker. The contest has drawn national GOP figures such as House Minority Leader John Boehner, who headlined a fundraiser for Hartzler earlier this month.

Rather than running from his Capitol Hill influence, Skelton embraces it. Three of his campaign ads are about his committee work. In one, the mother of a Marine says she appreciates Skelton for working to fund training and equipment.

"Ike works hard every day for our men and women in uniform," campaign manager Jason Rauch said in a statement.

Other chairmen listed in competitive or potentially competitive races by the non-partisan Cook Political Report include: Rep Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., of the Natural Resources Committee; Rep. Paul Kanjorksi, D-Pa., head of a panel on capital markets, and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., leader of a communications panel.

Others have already been ousted or will be turning over their gavels. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who faced a strong GOP challenger this year, announced his retirement in May and will leave his perch atop the House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., who oversees Commerce and Justice Department funding, lost his primary election in May.

The two departures put a dent in the traditional thinking that Appropriations Committee members, who control spending, can cruise to re-election by directing federal funds to their districts.

"Whatever reputation the appropriations committee had for providing the sustenance for eternal political life is a little outdated at this moment," said Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation.

Minority parties have picked off senior committee chairpersons in the past, particularly in "wave" elections. In 1994, the GOP beat then-House speaker Tom Foley of Washington and House Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Brooks of Texas. When Democrats gained control in 2006, they did so by defeating Resources Chairman Richard Pombo of California.

But Martin Frost, a former House Democratic campaign chairman, said he does not see a similar fate for committee leaders this year because they're better prepared. "They understood early that they had real contests," he said. "They're going to have tough races, but I think they're going to be fine."