There was a fairly recent time when the word most associated with the chairmanship of a major committee in the House of Representatives was powerful. Retiring Representatives Dingell and Waxman enjoyed the aura that came with the gavel.
That was then. Confirmation of how things have changed came this week when the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee unveil a tax reform plan that everyone agrees is both credible and going nowhere.
Chairman Dave Camp worked hard to come up with his plan and his apparent willingness to allow others to declare it dead on arrival tells us both something about him and something about the system we all love to berate. Increasingly chairmen are seen as the servants of the system rather than masters.
The relationship between the chairman and the leadership has always been a wary one. The chairmen are viewed as parochial and the leadership as unappreciative of those who have to do the heavy lift of writing legislation. In the pre-Gingrich period, before the imposition of term limits, chairs tended to gain power during long years of service. The current six year limit makes those like Chairman Camp a lame duck, limiting his power to convince members that it is in their long-range interest to embrace his priorities.
Ultimately, the leadership decides what proposals get to the floor, suggesting that the chairman who moves forward without leadership support may be on a mission that is both dangerous and futile. But it would not be a suicide mission and it isn't clear who'd be left most uncomfortable. One can speculate as to what the next act would be if the Ways and Means Committee approved tax reform legislation in the next month. It would not be an easy decision for the leadership to bar floor action - and it isn't beyond belief that the leadership would reluctantly support the process if confronted with the inevitability of committee action.
Major changes like tax reform have a common dynamic in that those pushing them have to create an environment where the perception of their project goes from the impossible (because everyone is at risk when the comfortable old rules are up for revision) to the inevitable (at which point the interest groups break away from the inaction coalition and focus instead on getting the best deal possible for their constituents). As they say in politics, when you see the train leaving the station, its best to step off the tracks and try to board as it passes.
Today's conventional wisdom holds that Camp's plan cannot progress this year, but one could argue that he's trapped only if he's committed to coloring within the lines. If he was willing to challenge the leadership by attempting to move ahead with his priorities - something more junior tea party members have done repeatedly - he could shake things up a bit while placing members of his committee in a deliciously uncomfortable position. Would the committee members who helped him now draft the plan be willing to walk away because the leadership said the time wasn't right?
In the old days, like when I worked for Chairman Rostenkowski in the 1980s, most of the members would have seen sticking with the chairman as the less perilous posture, although he would have been extremely reluctant to ever attempt such an act of open rebellion. Not by accident, Camp has less clout and such a provocative strategy would be a greater threat to his future than it would have been in the 1980s.
Pundits and historians have a soft spot for legislators who challenge regular order that grows into an awe for those who are successful. I wouldn't bet on Camp's taking the risk of coloring far outside the normal legislative lines, but think it worth acknowledging that things don't have to be as bleak as they seem. He has a rare opportunity to challenge convention. It would be interesting if he had the imagination to take it.