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Race for Chair of House Energy and Commerce Up in the Air

​By Rachel Leven and Alex Ruoff

Just when you thought elections were over, there's another key contest to watch—a three-way race to run the House Energy and Commerce Committee starting in 2017.

The race has a front runner—Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.); a competitive challenger—Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.); and a longshot candidate—Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). Of course, this race was expected to play out under the status quo of a Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) speakership, but with President-elect Donald Trump and an emboldened conservative wing in the House, Ryan's future is unclear, as is this race.

Who becomes chairman matters because it translates to different agendas for the committee. And where seniority plays a large role in determining who will lead a given committee, it is the “chairman's prerogative” to choose subcommittee chairs, a committee spokesman told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail.

The race for chairman will move into the spotlight following the party's successful holding of the lower chamber. Congressman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) will aim to continue on the committee as ranking member, a Pallone spokesman told Bloomberg BNA.

The seat is opening because Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) hit his six-year term limit and won't request a waiver, the committee spokesman, Sean Bonyun, told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail. That left three of the next four senior Republicans on the committee vying for the chairmanship.

The Players

Barton is the most senior of the candidates. He served as chairman of the committee for one session in the early 2000's and also has served as ranking member. The House needs someone to step in and act right away, he said, adding that his previous experience guiding bills such as major energy legislation and National Institutes of Health reauthorization through Congress makes him right for the job.

Among his potential priorities are rescinding the Affordable Care Act and clarifying the limitations of administrative authority under the Clean Air Act, Barton said. Barton would work with House leadership and Trump on their priorities and would consider rescinding the Clean Power Plan legislatively, if needed, he said.

“The American people are rightly going to require real change, real fast,” Barton said, calling the Republican sweep a “rare opportunity.” “I'm the only one that's actually done it.”

Shimkus, the second most senior contender, is widely believed to be the frontrunner. Shimkus has said he wants to reauthorize the Federal Communications Commission, if chosen as chairman. He also has mentioned that the departure of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) provides an opportunity to get the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site opened as the single U.S. site for nuclear waste.

Meanwhile, Greg Walden wants the leadership job and has kept his name in the running, at least in part because of his time as the chair of the Nation Republican Congressional Committee, a political committee supporting House members. Walden has contributed $500,000 to the Republican congressional committee total, while Shimkus donated about $276,000 total, according to Federal Election Committee filings.

The Presidential Race and the Chair

The race has been ongoing; however, President-Elect Donald Trump (R) may throw a wrench into the mix. As the election results came in Nov. 8, Trump friend and Fox News host Sean Hannity made a bold statement: if Trump's in, House Speaker Ryan is out. House Republicans will nominate the next speaker on Nov. 15.

Chris Vieson, a partner at PSW Inc. and former director of floor operations for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), told Bloomberg BNA that while chairmen that are already in place would likely stay in place, this chairmanship which is up in the air could be vulnerable if Trump played that card.

“I think the growing sense is that whoever Ryan wants will become the next chairman,” Vieson said of the race. “It would be the same for whoever is speaker.”

It doesn't mean that Trump absolutely will seek Ryan's immediate ouster as speaker, Vieson said, adding that it would be “very tone deaf of him and his staff” to start his presidency that way.

Talking Subcommittees

Some subcommittees for the committee could see leadership changes, as well. The chairman will ultimately pick the subcommittee chairs.

Among the subcommittees up for a new chair is the Health Subcommittee, which will have a new chairman because Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) is retiring. Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) is the vice chairman of the subcommittee and likely replacement.

Additionally, the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee may need a new chair, should its current chairman Shimkus move to lead the full committee.

There is still time for some movement on legislation in the committee during the lame duck, as well, under current committee leadership. The committee has broad jurisdiction over drinking water, hazardous waste, mining waste, injection wells, plant security and toxic chemicals.

Room for Action During Lame Duck

For example, Upton has been seeking a deal to enact his landmark legislation, the 21st Century Cures Act (H.R. 6) during the lame duck session. He has support from House leadership but faces opposition from Democrats who want to include new provisions aimed to curb rising drug prices.

The House passed the bill in the summer of 2015, but the legislation has been held up in the Senate over disagreements on its multi-billion-dollar price tag. Further complicating the matter, more than a dozen groups—including the Center for American Progress, the AFL-CIO, and Public Citizen—sent a letter Oct. 26 to Democratic leaders in the House and Senate asking them to delay passing Cures until 2017.

A spokesman for the Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee told Bloomberg BNA that any final Cures bill must include some policies that facilitate access to affordable drugs. However, what provisions Democrats will demand is unclear.

Committee members have said they're likely to holding hearings on the ongoing implementation of the Medicare doctor payment system created under the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), a 2015 law, and ways to expand Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services.

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