As the world focused on whether Speaker Paul Ryan will be deposed before he retires, another potential high-profile coup flew under the radar this week: Some House members are pushing to punish Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen.
Frelinghuysen, who has already announced he is retiring at the end of this term, was one of 30 Republicans to vote against the GOP farm bill last week, continuing his pattern of voting against several of the most high-profile bills that his leaders have tried to pass. The move did not go unnoticed by his colleagues.
At a private GOP Conference meeting Tuesday morning, Rep. Austin Scott stood up and excoriated members who vote against the team. He suggested a change to internal conference rules that would force chairmen to vote with their party and said members who part with the pack should be punished, according to three sources in the room.
“This is a conference issue and I’m not going to speak publicly to it,” Scott said Wednesday, when asked about his comments.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker, however, said something needs to be done. He commended Scott for “speaking out against that, stepping up there,” yet cautioned that he does not want to prescribe a solution for a problem that should be leadership’s to handle.
“I think leadership needs to do something instead of just looking the other way,” Walker said. “That’s ridiculous. Every major thing that we do, he goes the other direction. That’s not the qualification for a committee chairman and I’m hoping they’ll take some action.”
Leadership could pressure Frelinghuysen to step down, but he is already retiring at the end of his term, so there is no guarantee he would do so. In a more drastic step, his chairmanship could be revoked by the House Steering Committee, the body that selects committee chairs made up of members of leadership, some committee chairs, regional representatives, and members representing their election class. The Steering Committee would have to recommend that he be demoted, and the whole Conference would have to then vote to ratify it.
This idea is not new—Ryan reportedly weighed stripping his chairmanship after Frelinghuysen voted against the tax bill.
Frelinghuysen’s office did not return a request for comment. Spokeswomen for Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy declined to comment.
In addition to the farm bill, Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, was one of only 12 Republicans to vote against their signature tax bill and one of only 20 who voted against the GOP’s original attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. He eventually voted for an amended Obamacare-repeal bill, which failed to pass the Senate.
While the tax bill was eventually signed into law, the health care and farm bills failed in embarrassing fashion, frustrating House Republicans.
Although he did not want to expound on what he said behind closed doors, Scott noted that to blame just one person for the farm-bill’s failure would be wrong, when “demands on a totally separate piece of legislation were made.” Many members of the House Freedom Caucus voted against the farm bill in an attempt to force leadership to bring an immigration bill to a vote.
Yet expectations are different for Freedom Caucus members than they are for a top committee chairman. Frelinghuysen has one of the most coveted jobs in Washington, chairing the committee that funds all aspects of the federal government and enjoys prime office space in the Capitol. When you chair a committee—especially an “A Committee”—there is an expectation that you vote with the team.
Frelinghuysen’s gavel is already up for grabs next year, since he is retiring. Robert Aderholt, who is vying to replace him, said that perhaps there should be a rule for committee chairs to vote with leadership’s priorities.
“When the tax bill came up, I think it was like, ‘OK, what’s the deal here?’ But I think there have been a lot more questions because of this additional bill,” Aderholt said. “At some point there’s a lot of members saying we … need to have a rule on how we’re going to operate. Everybody’s got to live by one rule, or is there an exception for some people?”
Aderholt, an Alabama Republican, acknowledged that his uber-conservative district makes it easier for him to vote with the team, in contrast to Frelinghuysen’s moderate district. But he said that members are frustrated especially because Frelinghuysen is unburdened from running for reelection.
“I know there is frustration out there, and especially since he’s not running for reelection,” Aderholt said. “I think there is an expectation for the chairman to vote with the team, unless there’s extenuating circumstances … unless there is some parochial issue in their district, that they have a real problem, a real issue.”
Frelinghuysen released statements on the Obamacare repeal and tax bill votes noting that he thought the legislation would be bad for his district. Frelinghuysen told Roll Call this month that he has never voted for a farm bill. Several moderates voted against it out of concern for changes made to the food stamp program.
His vote against Republican priorities could have repercussions beyond just Frelinghuysen: The Appropriations Committee is in the midst of shepherding its spending measures through Congress, and members have long complained of the irony of Frelinghuysen asking them to vote for bills they do not fully support when he does not do the same.
Still, removing a chairman is an extraordinarily rare move, and would exacerbate internal tensions at a time when Republican leaders are trying to downplay their infighting and pass legislation before the election season.