Nunes’s Retirement Says a Lot About Congress
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Representative Devin Nunes announced last week that he’s resigning at the end of the month to go to work for former President Donald Trump. In a way, the decision isn’t surprising. But it does tell us a fair amount about the House, the Republican Party and, perhaps, Trump himself.
So, first, the House. Nunes probably had a route to re-election, and if he returned in 2023 with a Republican majority, he was in line to be chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over large portions of domestic policy. In the past, chairing that committee would’ve been worth sticking around for years, even decades; in some ways, it was a more important position than speaker of the House. But committees have declined in importance as the chamber has become more centralized. What’s more, the relatively frequent turnover of party majorities means we’re unlikely to see a stretch such as that from 1957 through 1994, in which the committee had only three chairmen over an almost 40-year period. The prize is worth a lot less if it can’t be retained for long — and on the Republican side, committee term limits mean that six years is the current maximum anyway.
So what does this decision tell us about Republicans? Political scientist Richard Fenno explained in the 1970s that representatives used the committee system for three potential goals: re-election, influence in the House and influence over policy. Heading up Ways and Means should help with all three, but it’s presumably most valuable to those who care about changing policy — and such members are scarce in the post-policy Republican Party. In the 1990s, when Republicans won a House majority for the first time in four decades, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer was certainly someone who had a strong interest in crafting tax policy and had a reputation for knowing the topic thoroughly. Paul Ryan became Ways and Means chairman in 2015 during a second period of Republican majorities. He wasn’t exactly known for policy expertise — but he was known for talking a lot about policy, even if there were a lot of questions about whether he was really doing the work. To be perhaps a bit unfair, if in 1995 many Republican politicians still cared about public policy, by 2015 they were impressed by someone pretending to care about policy. Now it appears that even the pretense is gone.
Nunes’s decision might also suggest something about Trump. Suppose that Nunes is mostly interested in being loyal to the former president. Trump’s conception of loyalty doesn’t have much wiggle room; he expects people to do what he wants, whether it’s feasible or not. But chairing Ways and Means is a position of responsibility. It could put Nunes in the position of having to vote for things that Trump might not support. In part, that’s inherent in any leadership position; one of the real requirements for party leadership in Congress, and for politics in general, is a willingness to absorb blame and shield others from it. But Trump, and Trump-style politics, makes absorbing blame a lot more painful than it normally would be — as can be seen in the former president’s attacks on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over the debt limit, or, for that matter, in what happened to former Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6.
So there are two things going on here. One is that the Republican lack of interest in public policy is becoming institutionalized. The other is that — at least as long as Trump is still influential — there appears to be some serious disincentives for others in the party to take on important leadership roles. Both changes will likely make it even harder for the party to govern effectively.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.