Removing House Members From Standing Committees
Representative Chris Collins, R-N.Y., was recently arrested for insider trading. Immediately after his arrest, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., released a statement saying, in passive voice, “Until this matter is settled, Rep. Collins will not be serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.” This was reported by multiple news outlets as Ryan stripping Collins of his committee membership. But technically, that’s not possible.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Speaker can remove members of select committees and conference committees at any time. And internal party rules require an indicted chairman, ranking member, or member of leadership to temporarily step aside. For example, Speaker Ryan could remove Representative Devin Nunes, R-Calif., from the House Intelligence committee (HPSCI) at any time for any reason — HPSCI is a select committee.
But Energy and Commerce is a standing committee. That means that Ryan didn’t remove Collins per se. Rather, Collins submitted a letter of resignation - described as a “temporary removal” - which was unanimously agreed to by the House in a pro forma session Friday morning (as shown in this brief C-Span clip). How much arm twisting happened behind the scenes will be left as an exercise to the reader. (CRS says it’s an open question whether an indicted-but-not-convicted member could be required to suspend participation in a committee.)
Members might step down under other circumstances, but it always requires more than a statement by the Speaker. For example, Representative John Conyers, D-Mich., sent a letter to Democratic leadership stepping down as ranking member of the Judiciary committee; Representative Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described it as Conyers agreeing to step down. (There’s no doubt he was under enormous political pressure to do so.)
Speaker’s Perceived Power
Removal of committee members is a significant point of contention concerning the Speaker’s perceived power. Five years ago, then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, stripped four Republicans of key committee assignments because they disagreed with him on policy grounds and voted against leadership positions. Reaction to Boehner’s move eventually spiraled into a rebellion several years later aimed at forcing him out. Yet Boehner didn’t act on his own authority to remove the members. Instead, he removed them via the party steering committee nomination process, which declined at the start of the 113th Congress to re-nominate them to the committees on which they previously served.
Incidentally, Collins said on Saturday that he would suspend his campaign for reelection. (perhaps it’s too late to remove his name from the ballot?) Regardless, his move limits some of the leverage congressional leadership might have over him. The next congressional action he has to look forward to is activity by the House Ethics Committee, which, in the next 30 days, must either vote to start an inquiry into Collins or report to the House why it has not done so, in accordance with committee rule 18(e)(2). According to some news reports, Ryan reported Collins to the Ethics committee. But again, that could be a misreading of the aforementioned statement by Ryan.