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Musical Chairs and Post-Election Congressional Committee Leadership

October 28, 2016

In last week’s column, we looked at Presidential transition and emphasized that the breadth of changes that are coming. Leadership, policies, programs, priorities, etc., will all be fundamentally different. In short: expect a level of turnover and change that is beyond what can easily be imagined. Note that this will be true whether it is a Democrat to Democrat transition (Clinton wins) or a Democrat to Republican transition (Trump wins).

What about Congress? We don’t have a crystal ball, so we don’t know whether the Democrats will be the majority in the Senate and whether the Republicans will retain control of the House. Regardless, we can be sure that there will be lots of movement on committee assignments, chairmanships, and ranking members. In fact, there will be a cascade as senior Members make decisions and affect the opportunities available to others.

For example, Barbara Mikulski, Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee is retiring. This is of vital interest to the Alliance because the Senator was a great advocate for federal agencies in Maryland. Who will succeed her as Ranking Member — and might it matter whether the Democrats retake the Senate and a chairmanship is at stake?

While the four most senior Democrats on the Committee would normally be in the best position to succeed Senator Mikulski, there is a possibility for each that they may have other priorities. Next in line (by seniority) is Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. It is assumed that he would prefer to retain his position as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Patty Murray of the state of Washington is next in line. It is widely rumored that she would like to ascend to a higher slot in the Democratic leadership, which might preclude her becoming ranking on Appropriations. Otherwise, she would need to choose between ranking on Senate HELP and ranking on Appropriations.

Next in seniority is Senator Diane Feinstein of California. She is Ranking on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and also is the Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Water, which is important to California. She might well become the senior Democrat on Appropriations, but will have to make decisions on her priorities. Finally, Senator Durbin of Illinois is in line for the ranking position, but as the Senate Whip he does not chair a major committee. Should he not be re-elected to that position, he might want to be the lead Democrat on Appropriations.

The situation in the House is not quite as complicated because Members usually serve on only one major committee and that is their only pathway for moving up. However, Republicans (but not Democrats) have a three-term limit on chairmanships. As a result, both the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee (currently Hal Rogers of Kentucky) and the Chair of House Energy and Commerce (currently Fred Upton of Michigan) will be replaced in the new Congress. In both cases, it is still unsettled as to whether succession to the next most senior Member will be contested.

All in good time, these interlocking possibilities will resolve themselves. However, it is illustrative of the maneuvering that will begin soon after Election Day. Many of the Senators and Representatives will have their same positions next year, but in many cases they will have moved up in seniority on committees and subcommittees.

Note: This week’s Analysis and Commentary was written by Steven Grossman, the deputy executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

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