In a Republican Congress, Few Gavels for Women

If the GOP wins both chambers, it's likely just two standing committees would have female chairs.

After Republicans lost the last presidential race, a Republican National Committee autopsy report concluded that among other things, the party must promote more women and minorities into leadership roles to keep in step with changing demographics.

But if Republicans take control of both houses of Congress next year, they will—by one important measure—be taking a step in the other direction.

If the GOP wins the Senate this year, come January just two out of 36 standing committees in the two chambers would be helmed by women. That would mark a steep drop from the current Congress: Today, female members hold the same percentage of committee chairmanships as they do seats in the House and Senate—a little less than one-fifth—and more than a third of committee chairs in the current, Democratic-controlled Senate are female.

Of the 16 standing committee chairmanships in the Senate, Republicans look likely to fill just one with a woman: Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. All 15 of the others will be white men.

Similarly, in the GOP-controlled House, only one out of 20 standing committee chairmanships belongs to a woman while all others belong to white men. That figure is unlikely to change in the next Congress, in which Republicans are widely expected to maintain control. By contrast, six of 20 House Democratic ranking memberships are held by women—a number is that expected to rise by at least one in the 114th Congress—and 11 of 20 by white men, a number that is likely to decrease.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, a member of House Republican leadership, noted that although there are few committee chairwomen, half of the House GOP elected leadership is female. She acknowledged Republicans lag behind Democrats on gender and racial chairmanship diversity, but chalked it up to seniority.

"I have not seen any discrimination in our conference," she said. "Most everything around here is done on seniority. Part of the problem we have is that we have to catch up in seniority. There weren't large numbers of women years ago. Women came in and they haven't stayed in as long as the men have."

That is particularly true in the Senate. It is possible under Senate Republican rules, whereby committee members select their own chairman rather than relying on seniority, that another woman or nonwhite member could join Murkowski as a committee chair. But the makeup of a Republican-controlled Senate isn't likely to give the party many options.

Currently, just four Republican women serve in the Senate: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Murkowski. Collins is in line to take over as chairwoman of the Senate's Committee on Aging under a Republican majority, but that panel is a special committee and has no legislative authority. As for Ayotte and Fischer, both serve as the ranking members for subcommittees within the Senate Armed Services Committee, a Republican leadership aide noted. But neither has seniority on any full committee and would have to skip over several male colleagues in order to earn a chairmanship under a GOP majority. Such moves would be possible under Republican rules, but highly unlikely.

The Republican leadership aide argued that there is no gender disparity among Republican committee leaders, noting that of the party's few women "fifty percent of female members of the Senate would be either ranking members or committee chairmen" in the next Congress.

"How could we have any more? We don't have that many female members," the aide added. "My point would be all the Republican female senators have leadership roles now, you know, as ranking members of either a subcommittee or a full committee."

Republicans also have just three racial-minority members serving in the Senate: Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, who are Hispanic, and Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is African-American. All three senators are serving their first terms in the upper chamber and fall far behind their colleagues in seniority. Having been elected in 2010, Rubio comes the closest of the three to grabbing a gavel in the next Congress. He is the third-most senior lawmaker on both the Foreign Relations and Small Business committees, but is unlikely to pass over current ranking members Bob Corker and James Risch—particularly if he moves forward with a presidential campaign in 2016.

Based on current polling, just one or two additional women will join the Senate Republican conference next year, though as freshmen neither would be in line for a committee chairmanship. The Senate Conference's racial diversity won't improve even that much; every Republican candidate for the Senate this year, with the exception of Scott, who is seeking reelection to a full term, is white.

By contrast, Senate Democrats have six female chairwomen—all of whom are very likely to be ranking members on standing committees next Congress if the party loses Senate control. Additionally, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is the current chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee and would likely stay on as ranking member next year. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is Hispanic, controls the Foreign Relations Committee and will likely be ranking member if Republicans take over Senate control.

Meanwhile, in the House it is likely that more than 90 percent of all chairmanships will be occupied by white men next year. That is largely consistent with overall demographics of Republicans in the House. Out of the 82 women in the House, 19 are Republicans, which accounts for just more than 8 percent of the 233-member Republican Conference.

About 92 percent of House Republicans are men—and 89 percent are white men, a figure that could drop 2 percentage points in the next Congress as more women and minorities could be elected, according to projections from FiveThirtyEight.

Rep. Candice Miller is the sole female committee chair, wielding the gavel of the House Administration Committee, which has the smallest budget of all committees and handles in-house duties such as managing the Capitol complex, the Capitol Police, and the Library of Congress.

Miller ran for the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee in the last Congress, but was defeated by Rep. Mike McCaul. After that and a series of headlines criticizing the GOP majority for its all-male slate of committee chairmen, House Speaker John Boehner appointed her to chair the Administration panel.

No Republican women are running for House committee chairmanships this year. All of the candidates to head the nine committees that are facing a change at the top are men (the turnover is largely due to House Republicans' self-imposed term limits, which mandate a three-term cap for any chairman).

In fact, the closest woman to a gavel race is Foxx, who is a senior member of the Education and the Workforce Committee. Rep. John Kline has served for more than five years as chairman because he took the gavel midway through the 110th Congress, and to stay on in the face of term limits, he must secure a waiver from the Steering Committee. He has said he will ask for a waiver, and could well get it based on precedent and his close relationship with Boehner. But if he does not, Foxx said she may run.

"If he doesn't get a waiver, I would certainly consider the chairmanship of the committee," she said.

Several other men are running unopposed. Reps. Mac Thornberry and Mike Conaway, both of Texas, are presumed to head the Armed Services and Agriculture committees, respectively. There are races for both the Ways and Means and the Oversight and Government Reform committees, yet in both cases, all the candidates are white men. (Rep. Paul Ryan is expected to take the Ways and Means gavel while Rep. Jason Chaffetz appears to be the front-runner for the Oversight panel chairmanship, though the four-way race is tight.)

Meanwhile, white men are also expected to head lower-wattage committees, such as Natural Resources and Small Business, where the gavels look to be held by Reps. Rob Bishop and Steve Chabot, respectively. Staff for Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the only woman on the Small Business panel, confirmed that she is not running, while Rep. Cynthia Lummis, the only woman on Natural Resources, is running to be chair of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of conservative members. That race also looks likely to be won by a white man, Rep. Mick Mulvaney.

Beside the House Administration Committee, Boehner has sole authority to appoint the chairmen of four other committees, and if Boehner wants to make a dent in the demographics, he could appoint a woman to chair the Ethics Committee, largely viewed as a thankless job whose duties consist of investigating colleagues. Rep. Susan Brooks is the only woman on that panel and is its least senior member.

Boehner also controls the appointment of the Budget Committee chairmanship, but it is widely believed Rep. Tom Price, the vice chairman of the committee, will assume that role. Staff for Rep. Diane Black, the highest-ranking woman on the panel, confirmed she is not seeking the gavel.

In addition, Boehner appoints the Rules Committee chairman, and Foxx is vice chairwoman, but Rep. Pete Sessions is unlikely to be replaced. The Intelligence Committee chairmanship is also speaker-appointed, and Rep. Devin Nunes is said to be the top candidates. Nunes, a Hispanic of Portuguese descent, would be the GOP's sole racial minority in a chairmanship.

In recent years, House Republicans have addressed their demographic problems and elected three women into leadership. In addition to Foxx's role, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the conference chairwoman and Rep. Lynn Jenkins its vice chairwoman. Several women also hold subcommittee chairmanships across the conference.

Before Miller became a committee chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the most senior female Republican in the House, headed the Foreign Affairs Committee, but she was term-limited. When Ros-Lehtinen, who is Hispanic, stepped down from the chairmanship, the GOP also lost its only racial minority atop any committee. By contrast, seven black or Latino members are the top Democrat on committees, a number that will likely rise next year due to the retirements of white men who will be replaced by women or minorities.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Candice Miller's office did not respond to an interview request. The story also incorrectly described her record of committee service: Miller served on the House Administration Committee during the 108th Congress.