Newt Gingrich and his term limits saved GOP from the ‘ossified’ fate of House Democrats

Even the New York Times admits that the Democrats are out of touch.

On Sunday the editorial board of that paper took Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to task for letting House Democratic leadership go “from stale to downright ossified.” Thankfully for them, Republicans do not have this problem and they can thank Newt Gingrich.

In the House of Representatives, seniority reigns. Influence flows from time served rather than talent or ability. Prime committee spots generally go to the more senior, better connected members rather than the members most versed in a subject matter.

Real legislative muscle develops as politicians work their way up the ladder. The strongest man atop every committee is the chairman, who has the power to set the agenda, to write legislation, and manage a staff with a multi-million dollar budget.

Power corrupts, and entrenched power creates inertia. That’s why, as House speaker in 1994, Gingrich established term limits for Republican committee chairmen. A GOP member could only serve as committee leader three consecutive terms in a row. After that, they were out. It ensured new blood, and therefore new ideas, would be periodically pumped into the system.

Everyone hated it at the time.

“I’ve been accustomed to the seniority system, I’ve been here 29 years, and I’ve always been opposed to this,” Rep. Floyd Spence said as the rules took effect. Then the term-limited chairman of the Armed Services Committee, the South Carolina Republican complained to the Washington Post that “you can’t save the whole world in six years. There’s some more things that need to be done.”

Everyone hates it now, just less.

Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Lamar Smith, both Republicans, Texans, and committee chairmen, will soon quit congress. Both cited expiring committee posts as one of the reasons for their exits.

Attrition is already high among Republicans and losing Hensarling was a particularly big blow for the party. Under his leadership, the House Financial Services Committee dismantled much of Dodd-Frank. He could’ve done much more, arguably, if he had a few more years. On the other hand, Hensarling — who is viewed with distrust by Wall Street — never would have become chairman if not for committee term limits.

This creative destruction has kept the GOP fresh. The ranking Democrats on committees are ancient in comparison to the Republican chairmen, and Republican leadership could be mistaken as the children of Democratic leadership. For instance, Pelosi turned 78 this year. Retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., just 48.

There is no question, then, which side does a better job cultivating young talent. The career path ahead of freshman Republicans looks very different from that ahead of freshman Democrats. It will take a while for both to rise. For the Republican, at least at the committee level, there is a real chance at upward mobility and less of a chance of institutional resentment.

The GOP should thank Gingrich for keeping them young and saving them from the slow-motion octogenarian power struggle occurring on the other side of the aisle.

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