With many Republican leaders distancing themselves from Rep. Joe Barton’s apology to BP (including Barton), Democrats have been quick to point out that Barton isn’t any old congressman. He’s the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees the oil industry.
Imagine, some Democrats have warned, what would happen if Republicans won control of the House in midterm elections.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel alluded to that on ABC's This Week on June 20, 2010, when he warned "the ranking Republican (Barton) would have oversight into the energy industry, and if the Republicans were the majority, would have actually the gavel and the chairmanship."
Three days earlier, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made a similar claim via Twitter: "Who would the GOP put in charge of overseeing the energy industry & Big Oil if they won control of Congress? Yup, u guessed it - JOE BARTON."
Well, not so fast. While congressmen who are a minority party’s ranking member on a committee often rise to the chairmanship if their party regains majority control, that’s not always the truth.
As Politico's Jonathan Allen pointed out, "Barton has somewhere between zero and no chance of being the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman next year, according to Republican rules and sources."
Here’s why. Back in 1995, House Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich’s leadership imposed term limits on their own committee and subcommittee chairmen. Under those rules, a chairman or ranking member must step down after three terms. Rep. Barton’s third term heading the Republican contingent on the Energy and Commerce Committee will end at the conclusion of this Congress.
Exceptions have been made over the years, and Barton could seek a waiver from the Steering Committee. But Michael Steel, spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner, told us such waivers will only be considered in "extraordinary circumstances."
For the record, Boehner’s hard line on term limits for committee leadership predates the Barton apology controversy.
Back on Feb. 3, 2010, Boehner announced that the Steering Committee decided it would adhere to the term limits policy, even if Republicans were to regain control of the House. That wasn’t a popular decision with the ranking members of some committees who lamented that their leadership window would be eaten up by years serving as a relatively powerless ranking member of the minority party.
Barton, R-Texas, was among those who complained the loudest.
"Don’t ask me to do a good job in the minority and make a rule that says you can’t continue to do a good job as chairman," Barton told Politico back in February.
Although some Republicans called for his ouster as the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce panel, the Washington Post reported that Barton offered another apology to Republican colleagues on June 23, 2010, and that Republican leaders have decided to keep him in that seat through this Congress.
Again, exceptions to the term limit rule can and have been made in the past. In practice, Republican leadership can make exceptions whenever it wants. Given the Republican leadership’s rebuke of Barton’s comment, and the fact that Democrats have clearly seized on it as a potential wedge issue in the upcoming mid-term elections (Emanuel called it a "political gift") it’s hard to imagine Barton would be likely to win such an exception.
A literal reading of Emanuel's comments leaves ambiguous whether he is saying if the Republicans were the majority right now, then Barton would be chair, or if he's predicting what could happen if Republicans were to regain control of the House in the midterm elections. If Republicans were in the majority right now, then Barton would be chair. But they are not. We think in the context of talking about Barton's comment as a political gift, Emanuel is raising the specter of what would happen if the GOP wins a House majority in the midterm elections.
The fact is, even if Republicans were to win a majority in the House, it appears unlikely Barton would have assumed chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee next year anyway. Possible? Yes. But at the very least, it was far from a given, as Emanuel and Gibbs suggested. And so we rate Emanuel’s comment Half True.