Rep. Joe Barton has been in Congress for nearly half his life.
But at 66, the Ennis Republican is still not ready to simply sit back in his position as chairman emeritus of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In fact, in a power play, the former chairman wants to make a comeback.
Barton has put out the word that he wants to be the actual chairman of the powerful committee again, as he was from 2004 to 2006. He is going to make a run at it when the current chairman, Fred Upton, R-Mich., ends his six-year term-limited service at year’s end.
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The House GOP conference usually votes on chairmen and leaders immediately after the November elections.
“I believe I could be chairman for two more terms,” Barton told the Star-Telegram in an interview. “I’m certainly not the leading candidate, but I was chairman for one term and ranking member for two terms. Under the right set of circumstances, I’d have a very good opportunity to be chairman. I’d be an activist, can-do chairman.”
After talking to some members, Barton said, “I have been encouraged.”
Barton signaling his interest, especially so early in the process, is unusual. The chairmanship of the committee is one of the most powerful fiefdoms on Capitol Hill, with authority over virtually every aspect of American life, from energy and the environment to trade and health. The panel has often had carte blanche to investigate controversial issues such as charges that carmakers cheated on EPA emissions tests.
Barton can claim experience. He has been on the panel since 1987, according to his office, and after being chairman he served two terms as the top GOP member of the committee when Republicans were in the minority from 2006 to 2010. Late last year, he succeeded in what was a longtime personal goal: to end the 40-year U.S. ban on exporting crude oil.
The Waco native, who has an engineering degree, thinks he should still be able to serve two more terms as chairman. Once the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1994, after 40 years in the minority, leaders decided to limit committee chairmen to three two-year terms. Barton complains that former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, applied the rule to the time when the Texan was in the minority.
“Boehner reinterpreted that rule,” claimed Barton, in a way that was “absurd.”
It’s a fine point to some, involving a waiver from the rules, that Barton argued for and lost after the 2010 elections, when the Republicans regained the House majority.
Barton was given the title of “chairman emeritus,” which has no real power or additional staff. “Chairman emeritus is an honorary title, but it’s not a policy role position,” he said. “I assist the members, but I don’t have the authority to move a bill. It does not have a power component. It’s an influencing position.”
Odds against him
Barton knows the odds are against him. But the scrappy Texan is a gambler — he likes to play Texas hold ’em — and as the longtime manager of the GOP congressional baseball team he has battled a tougher Democratic team for years. In an annual game for charity sponsored by Roll Call, a news outlet, the Republicans have lost the last seven years straight.
Barton shows up wearing his Texas Rangers uniform with the number 6 — for the 6th Congressional District he represents. His son, Jack, 10, usually accompanies him, also in uniform. Barton shares custody of the child after a divorce last year. The congressman also has three grown children from an earlier marriage.
The leading competitors for the chairmanship are Republican Reps. Greg Walden of Oregon and John Shimkus of Illinois. The vice chairwoman of the panel, Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is also in the running but does not have as much seniority and is more of a long shot.
Walden has the inside track, in the view of House watchers, because of his successful stint as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm for House Republicans. Walden helped the party increase its majority in 2014 to 246 Republicans over the Democrats’ 188 members. He is in his second term as chairman.
“There’s a loyalty between incoming members who were helped by Greg Walden,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant and former congressional spokesman in the Senate and House.
Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm said in a statement to the Star-Telegram: “Of course, serving as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee would be an important responsibility, but any discussion of that is still very premature. Right now, Chairman Walden is focused on chairing the very active Communications and Technology panel, preserving and growing our Republican majority as NRCC chair and, most importantly, serving the people of Oregon’s Second District.”
Shimkus said in an interview: “A lot of us don’t feel good about publicly campaigning.” He and others don’t want to appear to be undermining Upton, the sitting chairman. “We don’t want to get in the way of his agenda.”
As for Barton, the Illinois Republican said: “Joe and I are great friends. I served under him.” Shimkus also ran for chairman in 2010. “We have this term limit issue that will be raised again,” he said of Barton’s chances. “Everyone’s lived under term limits.” Shimkus also plays on the GOP baseball team.
House Republicans hold “auditions” for chairmen where applicants make their cases before the Steering Committee, a panel that has historically been controlled by the speaker. New House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., made some changes to the composition of the panel, so that may be looser now. That committee then makes recommendations to the conference, which invariably approves them.
Barton’s fellow Texan, Rep. Michael Burgess of Pilot Point, also a member of the panel, was surprised to learn in an interview that Barton was seeking the chairmanship again. “I don’t know anything about it,” said Burgess. “It’s really early to be having this kind of discussion.”
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, said it’s too early in the year for much focus on chairmanships. “I don’t see that on our radar right now.”
Maria Recio, 202-383-6103