Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) freed up another seat on the coveted House Energy and Commerce Committee on Monday with his decision not to seek reelection.
And the early departure of Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) last week sparked some premature reshuffling on the same panel.
The GOP’s exodus from Capitol Hill dampens the party’s chances to reclaim the House or Senate next year, but it gives leaders an opportunity to reshape the party in small, often unnoticed ways by altering the makeup of the committees.
“Not surprisingly, the Hill is full of ambitious people who are constantly looking to advance up the ladder in an effort to represent their district more effectively,” said Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), who has expressed an interest in filling one of the open Republican seats on the House Appropriations Committee.
Congressional politics are more about personal interaction than the bully pulpit and big ideas of the presidency.
And since members of the minority tend to be drowned out by the White House and majority leaders on the national stage, they maintain at the committee level the sliver of influence they lose in other venues.
The first reshuffling will occur on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where Hastert’s departure opens the door for Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to take over as the ranking Republican on the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee.
Upton’s elevation would open the top GOP spot on the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, pitting Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) against Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.) for that slot.
Stearns has seniority over Shimkus, but some members and outside lobbyists are pushing for the Illinois Republican because he has raised more money for the GOP’s campaign wing.
Party leaders, though, are not expected to get involved with the reshuffling on Energy and Commerce, a senior leadership aide said, much to the relief of ranking Republican Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the former chairman who is clearly frustrated with his diminished role in the minority.
“This is one of the last powers I have left as the ranking member,” Barton said, “so I should be able to decide who chairs what subcommittee.”
In a testament to the increased importance of committee posts in the minority, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, the second-ranking Republican in that chamber, is expected to fill the Hastert seat, reclaiming the post he vacated when his colleagues elected him a leader.
The recent spate of retirements by moderate Republicans should give House conservatives even more sway in the next Congress — if party leaders acknowledge their increased influence by rewarding them with top committee posts.
The departures also give the leaders themselves more power, particularly Minority Leader John A. Boehner.
But the Ohio Republican has favored a hands-off approach that his members appreciate, while his predecessor, Tom DeLay, micromanaged many of the smallest committee decisions with his chairmen.
So far, 17 Republicans have already announced plans to retire, including Hastert. Rep. Bobby Jindal is leaving the House to be governor of Louisiana.
And three members have died this year.
Those departures free up a number of top committee slots, some of which have already been filled.
Three Republicans on the powerful Appropriations Committee have announced their decision to step down next year.
In addition, California Reps. John Doolittle and Jerry Lewis both face scrutiny by the Justice Department, while others, such as Florida Rep. C.W. Bill Young, may still decide to call it quits.
Ferguson’s decision to retire next year opens a fifth slot on Energy and Commerce in 2009.
Three slots are opening up on the Financial Services Committee and two seats will open on the House Ways and Means Committee if Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) follows through on his pledge to make next year his last in the House.
The Republican Steering Committee, which determines committee assignments, isn’t slated to meet again until after the next election, a GOP leadership aide said, so the jockeying remains subtle.
The slots give party leaders leverage to exact more campaign cash from their rank and file after Republicans squandered their historic fundraising advantage in the House after last year’s loss, with Democrats contributing more than twice as much to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as GOP lawmakers have given to their campaign arm.
The Appropriations slots should be the most coveted if Republicans remain in the minority, as expected, because the committee operates in a more bipartisan manner than most of the others.
Ohio loses two seats on the powerful spending panel with the retirements of Republican Reps. David Hobson and Ralph Regula.
Boehner holds the most votes on the Steering Committee, should he retain that post after the elections, but the state does not have a deep bench, given three retirements already and the death of Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio).
If Young steps down, some insiders expect Florida to clamor for another seat on the spending committee.
Bonner and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), also interested in the committee, are expected to seek seats when the spots open up.
“I have expressed interest in the past in serving on the House Committee on Appropriations,” Wilson said in a statement, “and that is certainly a duty I would be grateful to perform should there be an opportunity.”
In his own statement, Bonner said, “Anytime there is an opportunity for a seat on one of the exclusive committees, such as Approps, Energy and Commerce or Ways and Means, you automatically see an uptick in interest among members.”
Both members pledged to do everything in their power to help Republicans regain their majority, because even top committee seats are diminished in the minority.
Conservatives may try to capitalize on their expanded clout in the minority to elevate a member or two to the Appropriations panel as part of an ongoing effort to curb federal spending, an aide said.
A seat on the committee would allow them to advocate for change from the inside, something panel Republicans have paid repeated lip service to in the minority after pursuing only modest reforms when they were in power.