Keith Ellison Committee Assignments
While much speculation over House leadership changes in the 115th Congress is focused on a contentious speaker’s election that may never materialize, a long series of intraparty leadership, committee and caucus races guarantee significant turnover in top House posts next year.
Retirements, term limits and lawmakers departing for other jobs mean that at least 17 prominent roles, and likely more, will change hands. Elections to determine those new influencers are set to begin during the lame-duck session that opens the week after Election Day.
Up first are the party leadership elections. The House Republican Conference is scheduled to hold its closed-door elections for speaker (assuming the party keeps its majority), leader, whip, conference chair, vice chair, secretary and policy committee chair on Nov. 15. Winners only need to earn a simple majority of the votes cast. Most of the conference’s picks are guaranteed to be the leaders for the next Congress, but the speaker faces the additional hurdle of a floor vote in January that requires a majority of the entire House, or 218 ayes.
The Democratic Caucus will hold its leadership elections sometime during freshman orientation in November — either the week after the election or the week after Thanksgiving.
Here’s a look at the posts that are or could be contested:
National Republican Congressional Committee Chair
This will probably be one of the more high-profile leadership races, with Reps. Steve Stivers of Ohio and Roger Williams of Texas competing to head the House Republicans’ campaign arm during a midterm cycle in which the GOP will be looking to make up for expected losses from the 2016 election. The winner will succeed Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who is seeking the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, assuming Republicans keep control of the chamber.
Stivers believes the NRCC could add value by helping incumbents who face primary challenges. Roughly 200 of the 247 House Republicans worry more about primaries than general election contests that have been the NRCC’s focus, he said in an interview.
The NRCC would only provide assistance in primaries if polling shows a real contest (similar to the existing Patriot Program), and funds would only go to members who’ve paid their NRCC dues, Stivers said of his proposal. “It’s got a very, very warm reception,” he said. “People are very excited about and anxious about some help in primaries.”
A Williams spokesman said the congressman would not discuss the NRCC race until after the election, honoring a request from Speaker Paul D. Ryan for members to not publicly campaign for leadership races before then. His decision to run came after numerous members approached him to fill the role because of his fundraising experience, the spokesman said. Williams has run the Republican National Committee’s Eagles program, which provides access to donors who contribute $15,000 or more a year and has helped former President George W. Bush and Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
Republican Conference Vice Chair
Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins, the current conference vice chairwoman, has not said whether she will run again, but if she decides not to — as some are speculating — it will likely create a contested election. A Jenkins spokesman said she is focused on serving her constituents and retaining a strong House majority, and that “there will be plenty of time after the election for leadership races.”
Texas Rep. Bill Flores, who is term-limited as the Republican Study Committee chairman, is considering running for conference vice chairman, but he does not plan to make any decisions until after the election.
Republican Conference Secretary
The conference secretary position will be open since North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx is expected to seek the gavel of the Education and the Workforce Committee. Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski is considering running for the post. Other candidates may emerge to make this a contested race.
Democratic Caucus Chair
The current caucus vice chairman, Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, has his eye on replacing Chairman Xavier Becerra of California, who is prohibited from seeking a third term under caucus rules. Crowley is not expected to be challenged but has not yet formally announced that he is running.
Democratic Caucus Vice Chair
The main contested race in the Democratic leadership will be for caucus vice chair. Reps. Barbara Lee and Linda T. Sánchez, two minority women from California, are vying for the position considered to be fifth in the leadership line.
Democrats are hoping this contest won't evolve into the kind of hard-fought battle the party faced two years ago, when New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California ran a heated campaign for ranking member of Energy and Commerce.
Members cast secret ballots in these races, so winners and losers don’t know who backed who.
Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chair
New York Rep. Steve Israel is retiring, creating an opening for chairman of the Democratic policy and communications committee, a position elected by the caucus upon a nomination by the House Democratic leader. Other members are allowed to nominate someone if they submit a notice signed by five other members. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi created the post for Israel in 2015 after he stepped down as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Top Committee Posts
Most committee chairmen and ranking members are selected by Republican and Democratic steering committees and then approved by the larger party caucuses. The steering committees will meet separately in December.
The structure of the Republican Steering Committee may be tweaked in a Nov. 16 vote on GOP conference rules for the 115th Congress. Committee members will be selected after the rules package is adopted, but the panel is likely to be comprised of party and committee leaders, regional and class representatives, and perhaps, a few at-large members.
The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is likely to keep most of its current membership, but there will be at least one opening as defeated Maryland Senate candidate Rep. Donna Edwards leaves Congress.
Energy and Commerce
Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan is term-limited and not seeking a waiver to continue heading the panel, even though he will continue to serve in Congress. That has created a contest between Oregon’s Walden, Illinois Rep. John Shimkus and Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton, the committee’s former chairman.
It's likely to be the most watched committee contest given the widespread jurisdiction of the panel and the unpredictable nature of the race.
Barton, the most senior member of the three, chaired the committee from 2004 to 2007 and served as ranking member from 2007 to 2009. His spokesman confirmed that he was in the running to take back the gavel. Considered a chairman emeritus, Barton's previous service atop the committee would normally mean that he would need to seek a waiver to get past Republican term limits, but his spokesman said leadership has assured the 16-term congressman that he does not need a waiver to run.
Shimkus, in his 10th term, has seniority over Walden, a factor the Steering Committee usually weighs heavily. But Walden, who's in his ninth term, has an advantage as the sitting NRCC chairman, since he’s spent the last two years raising money for his colleagues to help get them re-elected.
Like Upton, Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers is term-limited, not seeking a waiver and not retiring. The Kentucky Republican has said he would be interested in being chairman of the panel’s defense subcommittee next Congress. And there’s likely to be an opening, with New Jersey Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen, the current defense subcommittee chairman, seeking the full committee gavel.
Frelinghuysen is the most senior Republican appropriator next to Rogers, so he is favored even if another member were to challenge him. But a contest seems unlikely; Alabama Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, the only other member to have discussed running, appears to have backed off.
Expect contested races for both party leadership positions. Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe is running to succeed retiring Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida, Roe’s office confirmed. Committee Vice Chairman Gus Bilirakis of Florida, who is more senior than Roe, is said to be interested as well.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, the second-highest ranking Republican on the panel, is also running, his office confirmed.
The ranking member slot on the panel is also open since Florida Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown had to step aside after she was indicted. California’s Mark Takano has filled the role in an acting capacity and is seeking to make the role permanent. But Takano faces a challenge from Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, who has touted being the “highest-ranking enlisted soldier to serve in Congress.”
Education and the Workforce
Foxx of North Carolina is relinquishing her Republican conference secretary post to run for the chairmanship of the Education and the Workforce Committee, where the term-limited Chairman John Kline of Minnesota is retiring. She is not expected to have a challenger.
The speaker and minority leader nominate who leads the House Ethics Committee, whose members have the unpleasant task of sitting in judgment of their colleagues. Chairman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania is stepping down due to term limits imposed by the panel’s guidelines. California’s Sánchez, the ranking member, is eligible to stay on for one more term but is unlikely to do so if she wins the Democratic caucus vice chairmanship.
Chairwoman Candice S. Miller opted this year to run for local office in her native Michigan, creating an opening for a position informally considered to be mayor of Capitol Hill. The chair of this low-profile panel, which oversees everything from floor proceedings, security, payroll and office furnishings, is nominated by the speaker and confirmed by the entire conference.
Two potential successors have emerged. One is Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi, who is considered second-in-command on the panel. His office said the congressman has confidence the speaker will do what is in the best interest of the House. Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, who is third in line, may be another potential candidate. But all his office would say is that Davis would be interested in continuing to work on the committee in any capacity he is asked to by the speaker.
As speaker, Ryan gets to select the chairman of the Rules Committee and the Republican conference will ratify his choice. It is possible Ryan will reappoint Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who was selected in 2012 to head the panel by former Speaker John A. Boehner.
Sessions has been a loyal Ryan ally, but this would be Ryan’s first opportunity to choose a Rules Committee chairman, and he could decide to shake things up.
For now, Ryan’s team is not indicating a preference. “The speaker is focused on protecting our congressional majorities, and we’re not discussing chairmanships until after the election,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said.
Since Rep. Chris Van Hollen is running for Senate in Maryland, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will nominate the next ranking member on the Budget Committee, who will then be voted on by the entire caucus. She’s stayed mum on who she considers a favorite, but Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky has expressed interest to fellow members. The position is considered to be a leadership post, albeit one that is the lowest rung on the ladder.
Party Caucus Changes
Republican Study Committee
The larger of the two conservative caucuses in the House will hold its leadership elections on Nov. 17. Two candidates — Reps. Andy Harris of Maryland and Mark Walker of North Carolina — are vying for the chairmanship, which changes hands with each new Congress, per the RSC’s bylaws. Both men are current members of the group’s board of directors and say they are seeking to align conservatives so the right can exert even more influence in the Republican conference .
Harris, who is also a member of the more conservative House Freedom Caucus, is the recommended choice of the group’s prior chairmen, given that he’s served in Congress four years longer than Walker, who is a freshman. But Walker has also racked up several high-profile endorsements and doesn’t plan to go down without a fight.
The Tuesday Group, a caucus of centrist Republicans, does not have term limits for its leadership. Currently, the group is co-chaired by Pennsylvania’s Dent and Robert J. Dold and Adam Kinzinger, both of Illinois. Dent, who is the most public face of the leadership team, is expected to remain on as chairman. Dold and Kinzinger may run again too, if they’re re-elected to Congress. Dold is one of the most at-risk members this cycle, coming in fourth place on Roll Call’s most recent list of the top 10 most vulnerable House members. Kinzinger, however, is in a Safe Republican seat, according to The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rating.
House Freedom Caucus
Whether the Freedom Caucus elects a new chairman for the first time since the group’s inception in 2015 depends entirely on current Chairman Jim Jordan. The Ohio Republican is not expected to face opposition if he were to seek another term. But Jordan may be more likely to step aside and let another Freedom Caucus founder take the helm. North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Meadows has signaled he will run for chairman if Jordan does not. It’s unclear if any other members may consider challenging him.
Congressional Progressive Caucus
The Congressional Progressive Caucus will elect its co-chairmen as it customarily does before each new Congress. This panel does not have term limits. Current Co-Chairman Keith Ellison of Minnesota is running again, his office confirmed. But staff of fellow co-chairman, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, said it was not known if the Arizona congressman would seek another term.
Congressional Black Caucus
The Congressional Black Caucus is also holding an election, though it’s keeping a tight lid on who might be interested in leading the group. The CBC holds leadership elections before each new Congress. The caucus did not respond to a request for comment on whether the current chairman, North Carolina Democrat G.K. Butterfield, can or will run again.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus elects new leaders each Congress, per its bylaws. This year, the group will hold leadership elections in November. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, the current first vice chairwoman, is planning to seek the chairmanship. Other members of the leadership team are also expected to move up a rung on the ladder.
New Democrat Coalition
This is one of the more crowded races this cycle, with all three current vice chairs running to replace Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who cannot seek another term under coalition bylaws that prevent chairs from serving for two consecutive Congresses. Reps. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, Jim Himes of Connecticut, and Jared Polis of Colorado are all in the running to replace him. The New Democrats will hold their election the week of Nov. 28.
Blue Dog Coalition
Each Congress, the Blue Dog Coalition elects leaders after candidates are selected by a three-member nominating committee. Current coalition co-chairmen, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Jim Costa of California and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, will select the nominating committee members after the November election. Once the nominating commission proposes the candidates, coalition members will vote. Because the nominating committee has not yet been formed, it’s difficult to speculate on who the candidates will be.
This article has been updated to include Rep. Doug Lamborn to the list of candidates running for chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
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Members of the left wing of the Democratic Party are furious at Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez for removing party officials who backed Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison’s chairmanship bid from key party committees.
“It’s a slap in the face to the activists in the party that are working so hard to make the party more responsive to the grassroots,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a digital grassroots group. “The idea that you’re going to purge Ellison supporters and bring the party together doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Becky Bond, founder of Knock Every Door and a veteran of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Democratic presidential campaign, argued that the decision to remove Ellison surrogates puts Ellison, whom Perez brought on as deputy DNC chairman, in a “really hard place.”
“Ellison is someone who is the voice of the activists and grassroots of the Democratic Party,” Bond said. “If the grassroots feel Ellison is being ignored, that’s going to read that our priorities are being ignored.”
Ahead of the DNC’s first meeting under Perez’s leadership, which began Thursday in Las Vegas, Perez released his roster of 75 at-large DNC members as well as appointments to key DNC committees.
Activists immediately noticed that four Ellison supporters either lost their at-large posts or spots on influential committees. James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute and a top Sanders backer, was removed from the Executive Committee, which has major budgetary authority. Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman who earned praise for treating Sanders fairly, lost spots on both the DNC Executive Committee and the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which regulates the party presidential primary.(Buckley endorsed Ellison for chair after ending his own bid to lead the organization.)
Barbara Casbar Siperstein, the DNC’s first transgender member, was removed from the Executive Committee and the DNC at-large roster. Alice Germond, who worked as a secretary for the DNC for decades, lost her at-large DNC spot as well.
Of the four, at least one regained a top post through other means. Buckley picked up a spot on the Executive Committee on Friday afternoon, after members of the DNC’s Eastern Caucus elected him to represent them on the influential body. A bid by Zogby to do the same was unsuccessful.
For the broad camp of progressive Democrats (mainly Ellison or Sanders supporters) concerned about making the party more accountable to the grassroots and bringing in more independents, seats on the Rules Committee are especially prized.
Many activists felt that the DNC inappropriately put a finger on the scale for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, and now worry that it will not adopt a fairer process in 2020. The Rules Committee is charged with considering the recommendations of the DNC’s Unity and Reform Commission, a panel convened to reform the presidential nominating process that will present its slate of suggestions by the end of the year. (The commission consists of 10 Clinton appointees, eight Sanders appointees and three Perez picks.)
Reformers hope that the party will accept a dramatically reduced role for superdelegates ― the party officials who can vote in presidential primaries independent of the will of the primary voters in their state ― as well make it easier for independents to participate in primaries and other party functions.
“I don’t know what the Rules Committee is going to do,” Bond said of their forthcoming assessment of the Unity Commission’s recommendations. “But I know that there are five Clinton-appointed Unity Commission members on the Rules Committee and no Bernie-appointed ones now that Perez has shaken it up.”
Of course, the power of the Rules Committee is a matter of debate. Regardless of how the Rules Committee votes on the Unity and Reform Commission recommendations, the panel’s recommendations are subject to a vote among the entire voting DNC membership.
Perez’s critics have been piqued that the DNC responded to these concerns by highlighting the racial, ethnic, gender and sexual identity diversity of the broader at-large roster.
“This slate doubles millennial and Native American at-large representation, provides unprecedented representation for our allies in the labor community, and increases the presence of Puerto Rican at-large members at a time when the Trump administration refuses to take responsibility for the millions of Americans who are still suffering through a major humanitarian crisis,” DNC spokesman Michael Tyler told NBC News in response to the criticism.
The DNC’s response obfuscates the more critical question of who sits on key committees and the need to represent reform-minded people of all races and backgrounds in positions of influence, according to progressive critics.
“It’s not only misdirection, but it’s also divisive,” Jane Kleeb, an Ellison supporter and chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said of the diversity retort. “It continues to paint the Bernie people as not caring about our native and Latino and black brothers and sisters, which is complete nonsense.”
The anger at this particular line of attack came to a head at an Executive Committee meeting Friday when Karen Carter Peterson, the DNC’s vice chair of civic engagement and voter participation, accused Ellison loyalists of plotting to remove black women from party leadership and replace them with a less diverse slate of at-large members. Ellison and Zogby rose to deny that.
“The progressive DNC members were absolutely not strategizing to remove these black women from the DNC,” said Yasmine Taeb, a Virginia Democratic National Committee member. “We want to make sure that the DNC is inclusive of everyone from all of the wings of the party whether that means inclusivity of ideas and thoughts or race and other backgrounds.”
“We hope all of the other DNC members agree with us,” Taeb added. “We support Chairman Perez’s mission in trying to empower diverse Democrats.”
Ellison’s office declined to comment for the story.
An Ellison spokesman told NBC News, however, that some of Ellison’s suggestions for party leadership positions were accepted “and some were not.”
DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa rejected the idea that Ellison supporters are not represented on key committees. Hinojosa noted that the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee includes five people who backed Ellison’s bid for the DNC chairmanship: Nevada union official Artie Blanco; AFSCME president Lee Saunders; American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten; Indiana Democratic Party chairman John Zody; and Florida Democratic Party chairman Stephen Bittel.
The DNC does not look at presidential primary preferences when making committee assignments, Hinojosa added.
“There will always be small things that seem controversial and attempts to take us back to the 2016 primary, but Democrats from all parts of the party are thinking about how best to win in 2017 and beyond,” Hinojosa said.
Independents, who we need to win, are looking at our party and saying we want you guys to change things.Jane Kleeb, Nebraska Democratic Party
The fuss over Perez’s appointments is the latest flare-up of a long-simmering dispute in the Democratic Party between progressive reformers and establishmentarians.
Political observers frequently boil the internecine battle down to a replay of the contentious primary conflict between Clinton and Sanders in 2016.
There is, of course, some truth to this characterization. Ellison, who endorsed Sanders in 2016, had the support of many Clinton backers in his bid to chair the DNC, but the excitement behind his campaign was always driven by progressives associated with the Sanders campaign. His supporters saw his bid as an opportunity for the party to correct its mistakes from the 2016 election and embrace grassroots populism ― and they resented the intervention of figures like former President Barack Obama on behalf of Perez.
When Perez won in February, he immediately sought to assuage progressive skepticism by naming Ellison as his deputy.
Now some supporters wonder how far Perez’s commitment to Ellison’s agenda goes.
“Keith has been one heck of a loyal foot soldier,” Chamberlain said. “He has been shafted over and over again by a chair that appears to be incompetent at coalition politics.”
Rather than come down to a conflict between supporters of different candidates, the debate is now between supporters of all politicians who want to wipe corporate influence out of the party and those who do not, according to Bond, who is also a former leader of Credo, a leading progressive online activism group.
“You’re seeing it break down much more along issue lines: People who believe we need to be the party that stands up for a $15 minimum wage, single payer health care; that stands up for a strong real message on racial and economic justice that comes with actions that back it up,” Bond said.
Last week, Perez rankled many of these anti-corporate Democrats by appointing Dan Halpern, a former chairman of the Georgia Restaurant Association and past board member of the National Restaurant Association, as a deputy finance chair of the DNC.
The Georgia Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association have both opposed increases in the minimum wage, leading to charges that Perez had appointed a minimum wage opponent to a top fundraising post.
But in his capacity as CEO of Jackmont Hospitality, an Atlanta, Georgia-based foodservice company, Halpern has publicly expressed support for an increase in the federal minimum wage.
Joe Dinkin, national communications director of the Working Families Party, mentioned Halpern’s appointment in a broader criticism of Perez’s recent decisions.
“For the sake of the nation, the DNC should reverse course, spend less time courting big donors and more time bringing progressives voices into the party instead of silencing them,” he said.
Still other Democrats argue that the divide within the party is less about ideological differences than it is a fight between incumbents wary of threats to their power and reformers eager to open the party up to newcomers.
“Are you interested in changing how the party operates? Because that’s then how we recruit and engage grassroots Democrats into our party,” said Kleeb, who also sits on the board of Our Revolution, the legacy organization of the Sanders campaign. ”Independents, who we need to win, are looking at our party and saying we want you guys to change things.”
One thing seems indisputable: This is not the debate the party wants to be having just weeks before key legislative and gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.
The stakes are especially high in Virginia, where Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is running for governor of a state where Clinton defeated Trump by 5 percentage points. The latest polling shows him neck-and-neck with Republican Ed Gillespie.
Bond expressed hope that Perez would mend fences with progressive activists sooner rather than later.
“Perez still has time to show to the grassroots that he’s listening to people like Keith Ellison and that he is respecting and listening to the priorities of the grassroots,” she said.