Seniority Rules? Dems Jockey to Replace Rep. Barney Frank on Banking Committee

After Rep. Barney Frank announced his decision on Monday  to retire at the end of this term, attention quickly turned to who might take over his slot as the top-ranked Democrat on the powerful House Financial Services committee.

If House Democrats are able to score a net gain of 26 seats in next fall’s election, this lawmaker would ascend to the powerful committee’s chairmanship. The committee has jurisdiction over all issues pertaining to the economy, the banking system, housing, insurance, and securities and exchanges. Additionally, it has control over monetary policy, international finance, international monetary organizations, and efforts to combat terrorist financing.

Waiting in the wings is Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who made headlines last year for an ethics investigation into whether she abused her powers as a member of Congress.

After Frank announced his retirement, Waters unabashedly made her intentions quickly known.

“As the next most senior member of the committee, the current ranking member on the Capital Markets subcommittee and the former chair of the Housing and Community Opportunity subcommittee, I hope to use my experience to continue and expand [Rep. Frank's] work in the committee,” Waters, an 11-term lawmaker from Los Angeles, wrote in a statement Monday. “I will continue to champion practical regulations, while making sure they work for consumers and the financial sector, a sector which has the right to be profitable but the obligation to be fair, two concepts which are not mutually exclusive.”

Waters, a popular member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has persistently maintained her innocence and asked for the case to be dismissed. Since the allegations first surfaced, she has repeated to reporters that there was “No benefit, no improper action, no failure to disclose, no one influenced: no case.”

Among the charges Waters faced is that she allegedly broke House conduct rules for her role helping a minority-owned bank obtain federal bailout money during the financial collapse in September 2008. Waters’ husband was a former board member of the bank and held more than $300,000 in stock at the time of the requested meeting.

A trial scheduled for last November was postponed indefinitely and the investigation effectively reset after two lawyers on the ethics committee resigned following allegations they secretly communicated with Republicans on the panel and compromised the investigation. Outside counsel was then hired to determine whether the case against Waters should proceed. That report is due on Jan. 2.

But beyond the ethics investigation, Waters’ rise to the top is far from a done deal. The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee nominates members for the next Congress’s committee assignments and then the full House Democratic Caucus votes to confirm the nomination next year during the lame duck Congress.

Now other senior Financial Services Democrats are thought to be lobbying Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for a chance to skip through the informal line of succession.

Following Waters in Democratic seniority are Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Luis Gutierrez, Ill., Nydia Velazquez, N.Y., and Mel Watt, N.C.

Maloney, in particular, is expected to make a run at the gig after she was passed over in seniority to make room for another CBCer, Rep. Elijah Cummings, to take the Democrats’ top position on the House committee on Oversight and Government Reform last year. A spokesman for Maloney declined to comment on her future intentions related to the committee’s leadership.

Maloney is a close ally of Pelosi and is credited with championing the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights. Waters, who came to Congress the same year as House Speaker John Boehner, is considered to be a strong vote counter and is a three-time chief deputy whip of the Democratic caucus. A spokesman for Pelosi declined to comment on the brewing battle for the slot.

Democratic aides say a potential battle between Waters and Maloney “puts leadership in a tough position” because both lawmakers are deserving of the position and have labored steadily in the trenches of the committee for years.

Frank declined to endorse a Democrat to replace him atop the committee, but added that while seniority should be the initial consideration, “you do try to have some rules to minimize conflict” and “it shouldn’t take an enormous amount for people to vote no.”

“I think the rule that we have is a pretty good one,” Frank said. “Seniority should be, in legal terms, a very rebuttable presumption.”

Waters is currently the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government-Sponsored Enterprises while Maloney is the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit.

The Congressional Black Caucus, which Waters formerly chaired, is expected to discuss the committee’s shakeup at a meeting Wednesday afternoon. One senior Democratic aide close to the CBC said that “everyone is behind [Waters], including Rep. Watt,” and contended that “it does not make sense to look beyond Waters.”

“Waters is next in line,” the source said. “She has ranking in seniority and it would be looked at as unfair if she was not considered.”

Another senior Democratic aide said that based on her record, Waters is stronger than the rest of the field, in addition to having more seniority than anyone else.

“Whether you like her or not, Waters is a well-respected member of House,” another Democratic source said. “She is second in line, and seniority is an important aspect.”