Voters who said "change" was their watchword in these elections certainly got what they wanted in the new lineup of powerful House committee chairmen.
By handing control of the House of Representatives to Republicans, they also handed control of key congressional committees to members of the GOP who are in many cases diametrically different from their Democratic predecessors. As different as Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (male vs. female; conservative vs. liberal; laid-back vs. intense), that's how distinct the new committee leaders will be from the old.
At the Ways and Means Committee, the gavel passes from one Michigander to another, from acting chairman Sander Levin, D-Mich., to Dave Camp, R-Mich., but the two could not be more different. At Energy and Commerce, presumptive chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, already plans to make life miserable for members of the Obama administration by holding hearings on health care and compelling them to testify. At the Transportation Committee, prospective chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has a penchant for spending on Florida projects that he may have to curb in the face of a Tea Party backlash. And at Budget, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is best known for his "Roadmap" to partially privatize Social Security and turn Medicare (in the future) into a voucher program.
While both the potential of a Senate held by Democrats and the power of President Obama will serve to blunt the House committee chairmen's plans, expect the new-brand Republicans to be out front early with their ideas. They know they can't wait too long, because the election of 2012 is just around the corner, and as fast as the country turned around from 2008 to 2010, it could turn just as fast again.
Here are the key House committee changes affecting issues of concern to 50+ Americans:
Ways and Means. Dave Camp, R-Mich., an old-school conservative with a long memory, would become chairman. While Levin (and his predecessor Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y.) helped push health care reform over the finish line, the new guy is opposed to the health law. He is expected to be opposed to any taxes or spending that might be needed to implement the new law (and millions will be needed every year for the next 10). He opposed the act and took to task lobbyists, such as those from Wal-Mart, who backed the program. Those corporations that favored health care reform could see retribution in the form of possible taxes. However, while he is nobody's moderate, Camp has been known to work with Democrats like former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (when Emanuel was a congressman from Chicago) to expand tax credits for education costs and to make improvements in the Hope scholarships for low-income students.
Budget. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., author of the budget "Roadmap" so radical that it attracted support from only 13 co-sponsors and no current Republican leaders, would take the chairmanship. Ryan has said that his roadmap is a reflection of only his plans, not the GOP leaders', but that he wanted to show how the deficit could be addressed if the Congress were to make radical changes in entitlement programs. He may have to rein in his ideas, but the starting point gives an indication of where he's headed.
Appropriations. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., who was briefly chairman of the panel before the GOP lost the majority in 2006, is in line to regain the gavel. But he would need a "waiver" from the speaker and other House leaders because Republicans limit tenure as ranking member or chairman to six years. He's also been criticized as a long-term Appropriations Committee member with a passion for pork barrel projects — $137 million in his home district in 2007.
Financial Services. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who opposed Wall Street reform, would take over from liberal chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., who spearheaded the drive to get it passed. Bachus was once a bit of a conciliator on the issue, participating in talks on the financial industry bailout with Democrats. But when Republican leaders balked at the original deal he negotiated with Democrats, he was replaced in the talks, though he still voted for the TARP legislation. He seems to have regained Boehner's trust, however, and is in line for the chairmanship.
Energy and Commerce. Joe Barton, R-Texas, got himself in trouble with Republican leaders with his public apology to British Petroleum for the $20 billion the company agreed to pay during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. He is still in line for the chair, but if Republicans want to make an example of someone for intemperate comments, he could be the one to lose his seat. A likely replacement would be Fred Upton, R-Mich., who has a reputation as a more moderate voice — a plus and a minus this year.
Transportation. This committee has become a hotbed for authorization of infrastructure projects, particularly in light of the stimulus money available, and potential chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has been in the thick of it. He is looking to put a lot of money into Florida for future rail, road and bridge projects. But with conservative Tea Partiers coming to Capitol Hill, such largess may take a hit, because GOP leaders say they are going back to 2008 funding levels for projects.
Elaine S. Povich is a veteran Washington-based reporter.
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