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By Kyle Daly
June 8 — The question of who wields the gavel atop the House Energy and Commerce Committee next year could hinge on how well Republicans perform in the November elections — in more ways than one.
Oregon Republican Greg Walden, who is expected to seek the chairmanship if the GOP keeps control of the chamber, doesn't have as much seniority on the committee as Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who already has declared he wants to succeed outgoing chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.). But Walden's track record as leader of the National Republican Congressional Committee could vault him ahead of Shimkus in a race for the post.
That would put Walden, a lawmaker steeped in telecom issues and a leading congressional critic of the Democratic-led Federal Communications Commission, at the helm of the committee that rides herd on communications policy.
“We don’t live in a world anymore where seniority is the single largest driving force in the choice of chairs,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein said Walden's NRCC chairmanship could be a major asset to help him get the committee gavel.
To be sure, Walden hasn't formally launched a bid for the chairmanship. He told Bloomberg BNA that he’s focused on his duties as chairman of the NRCC, which organizes fundraising, research, outreach and other efforts aimed at getting Republicans elected to the House. Still, Walden hinted he might seek the committee gavel.
“I have great interest in the Energy and Commerce Committee, and I’ve enjoyed the service there,” Walden said. “It would be an incredible responsibility and opportunity to lead that committee.”
The committee has a sweeping jurisdiction that also includes environment and health policy.
Walden assumed the NRCC chairmanship after the 2012 election. He led the organization during the last House cycle in 2014. Republicans ended up with 246 seats to the Democrats’ 188 that year, the largest Republican majority since 1949.
In the current cycle, the NRCC has already broken several of its own monthly fundraising records. As of April 30, the last period for which totals have been counted, the NRCC had $53 million in cash on hand compared to $48.1 million held by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spokespeople for the respective committees told Bloomberg BNA.
A source with close ties to senior House Republicans told Bloomberg BNA that there’s already sentiment among House GOP lawmakers that they owe Walden for gains in the 2014 election. Many House GOP insiders view Walden as having the upper hand for that reason, even if the November elections don't go well for Republicans, the source said.
A former top NRCC aide told Bloomberg BNA that House Republicans are likely willing to reward Walden to acknowledge the work he’s done to get and keep party members in office.
Walden declined to outline the agenda he would pursue as Energy and Commerce chairman, telling Bloomberg BNA he's too focused on his NRCC duties to look ahead.
From his perch as the panel's Communications and Technology Subcommittee chairman, Walden has opposed the expansion of telecom industry regulation. He has fought the FCC on issues such as expanding the Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone and broadband service for low-income Americans. Walden has sponsored legislation to mandate internal FCC process changes.
Walden also has led the Republican charge against the agency's reclassification of broadband providers as subject to more stringent regulation under Title II of the Communications Act (2015 TLN 20, 3/1/15).
The Oregon Republican has scheduled a June 14 subcommittee hearing on the FCC's proposed privacy rules for broadband providers, which are tied to the commission's reclassification decision. He would be a major player in any legislative response to a pending federal appeals court ruling on a challenge to the reclassification (2016 TLN 20, 1/1/16).
Walden already enjoys the backing of some big names in the communications sector. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Comcast Corp., AT&T Inc., Google Inc. parent Alphabet Inc. and 21st Century Fox are among his top contributors this cycle.
By contrast, Shimkus' top contributors tend to come more from the health care and energy industries, including Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Exelon Corp. and Ameren Corp. The Illinois Republican is chairman of the panel's Environment and the Economy Subcommittee.
“Chairmanship is based on three legs of the stool,” Shimkus told Bloomberg BNA. “I show up for hearings and I ask questions. Another leg is, when you’re chairman of a committee, you’re vested and empowered by your colleagues: You’ve got to be there for the team. I think my record’s fine there. The third leg is, you help to reelect Republicans and keep us in the majority.”
If Republicans suffer House seat losses with presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, Walden's control of the NRCC's pursestrings could be something of a liability, Ornstein said.
“Walden might have to make some difficult allocation decisions,” Ornstein said. “Where do you put the money? You’re not going to have enough to just give everyone a general amount. You might end up with people who win in spite of [not getting NRCC money] who aren’t happy.”
But Ornstein said regardless of any hurt feelings over money allocation, it's unlikely Republican leaders will blame lost seats on Walden if Trump's unpopularity among the general electorate hurts House Republicans’ chances in November. Major Republican donors uncomfortable with Trump may channel money that would otherwise go to the presidential campaign to House and Senate campaigns. That would bolster the perception of Walden as a formidable fundraiser and booster for his fellow House Republicans.
Observers caution that even if Walden seeks the Energy and Commerce chairmanship, there's no guarantee he'll end up with it.
The question may come down to what matters more to the House GOP caucus: seniority or campaign support. One telecom industry source told Bloomberg BNA that, because it's not clear which of those factors carries greater weight among Republicans. The prospective race between Shimkus and Walden is too close to call now.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a former committee chairman, recently told Bloomberg Government that he’s also vying for the gavel, though Barton acknowledged it’s a “long-shot” amid questions about his eligibility to re-assume the chairmanship.
For his part, Walden told Bloomberg BNA he's “keep[ing] the powder dry” on a fight for the Energy and Commerce gavel and that observers should “stay tuned.”
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