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U.S. Reps. Michael Burgess And Joaquin Castro Seek House Leadership Roles

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, left, and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.
The Texas Tribune
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, left, and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.

The fall campaigns may be over, but for two Texans in Congress the elections are continuing into this week.

U.S. Reps. Michael Burgess, a Lewisville Republican, and Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, spent much of the last year pursuing colleagues to support their bids as their parties' top representatives of a pair of high-profile committees.

Burgess' aim is to be the top Republican — known as ranking member — on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, while Castro is seeking the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In November, Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat, won a lower-profile race to sit at the Democratic leadership table as a representative of recently elected members.

Burgess' race is the higher-profile one. The House Energy and Commerce Committee leadership is one of the most coveted roles on Capitol Hill. The committee oversees interstate commerce, giving it power over everything from oil and gas to health care to Major League Baseball to Silicon Valley. The committee's oversight is so expansive that a former chairman, the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, once had an enormous photo of planet Earth in the Democratic committee offices to illustrate the scale of the committee's jurisdiction.

The Burgess bid is particularly consequential in Texas amid a pandemic and plummeting oil prices.

His top rival in the race is Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a popular Washington state member who once served in House leadership. Seniority plays a role in these races but is not the only factor. On that front, Burgess has a slight edge as he came to Congress in 2003. McMorris-Rodgers was sworn in two years later.

It's expected to be a tight contest, and both contenders raised money and supported Republican candidates in their November elections across the country — a key determining factor. Burgess is perceived to have another advantage over McMorris-Rodgers, thanks to his previous career as a medical doctor. He's done much over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic to speak to the health care and medical issues in dealing with the outbreak and helping colleagues to do the same.

"Look, the two big things that people want to know about are health care and energy, so that really suits me perfectly," Burgess said in a Monday interview. "Obviously, heath care is something where I've made a name for myself as far as being the go-to person ... in the Republican conference for health care policy, and quite honestly, a lot of Democrats will come to me and seek my support on a bill that they've introduced because they know it's like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval when they get that.

"And then on energy, we are an energy state, and although the energy sector has suffered with the pandemic like every other sector of the economy, energy perhaps got the double-whammy of the price war with the Saudis and the Russians," he added.

The Texas Republican delegation, as is its habit, is lined up in support of him. The entire Texas GOP delegation wrote a letter to colleagues in support of his bid, according to a Burgess spokesperson. And his team points specifically to senior Texas Republicans as key advocates: Reps. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, Kay Granger of Fort Worth and Michael McCaul of Austin.

But those three members also work against Burgess in some ways. Each currently holds a ranking member slot in other committees. A recurring counter-argument to Texas Republicans running for committee leaderships is "Texas fatigue" — a sense from members in other states that the state has a bit too much power within the Republican conference.

On the Democratic side, Castro's bid is spirited but more of a long shot. Last month, he secured a fifth term in Congress, and he is an emerging leader within the Texas Democratic delegation. Even so, he is much more junior than his top rival, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, a state delegation that has proved dominant in leadership races within the Democratic caucus.

Castro is the 10th most-senior House Democrat on the committee, and his party’s caucus places far more emphasis on the issue of seniority than Republicans do.

In that context, Castro is making a generational argument to lead the committee.

"We need a new generation of foreign policy leadership with a new vision that promotes inclusive prosperity and democracy at home and a more holistic view of security abroad," he wrote on Medium. "I believe we must put diplomacy at the center of our strategy and rebuild America’s infrastructure of diplomacy to achieve a more open, peaceful and just world."

He further promises to incorporate issues like climate change, trade and immigration into how the committee writes policy.

Castro is also the outgoing chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a powerful voting bloc within the larger Democratic caucus.

Culturally, and particularly on the Republican side, Texans in Congress prize committee leadership posts. For the party in the majority, the roles offer enormous power in their jurisdictions and give a member the power of subpoena, a national platform and a fundraising perch.

Currently, there is only one Texan serving as a House chair: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Thanks to House Republican term limits for their members serving as chairs, a series of Texas Republicans have cycled in and are now cycling out of those posts. Heading into the new term, there are three Republican ranking members: Granger at the Appropriations Committee, Brady at the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and McCaul at the House Foreign Affairs Committee. All three will phase out of those roles over the next four years.

A Burgess ranking member slot extends the streak of Texas chairs and allows time for younger members to build up seniority to make their own bids to run committees.

Both Burgess and Castro are making their cases to each party's House steering committee. These are groups of respected members who issue recommendations on committee leadership.

The Democratic steering group endorsed Meeks with 29 votes, with Castro in second place at 13 votes. Another candidate, Rep. Brad Sherman of California, clocked the support of 10 steering committee members, per The Washington Post, before he dropped out of the race.

Typically, the larger House GOP conference and Democratic caucuses heed the guidance of the committeem but the post will still go before their sides' memberships for a formal, secret ballot. That's when things become dicey.

Members are notoriously dishonest over which candidates they will support, and even those members who are successful at leadership races are surprised to learn their vote counts are off.

Moreover, the two Texans running to lead committees underscore what’s at stake in the next two years. Republicans sharply cut into the House Democratic majority this year. Should Republicans close the gap in 2022, a ranking Republican would become a chair and a Democratic chair would lose control of the committee.

"Look, nobody runs for ranking member of anything. It's kind of a thankless job. You have no power, but you're responsible for everything that goes wrong," Burgess quipped. "Clearly, this is a race for chairman, and chairman of Energy and Commerce is a big deal."

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. A seventh-generation Texan, Abby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Fort Worth and has appeared in an episode of "The Bold and The Beautiful." Abby pitched and produced political segments for CNN and worked as an editor for The Hotline, National Journal’s campaign tipsheet. Abby began her journalism career as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, working her way up to the political unit, where she researched stories for Nightly News, the Today Show and Meet the Press. In keeping with the Trib’s great history of hiring softball stars, Abby is a three-time MVP (the most in game history —Ed.) for The Bad News Babes, the women’s press softball team that takes on female members of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball breast cancer charity game.