PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After 10 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Jim Langevin just got one step closer to leading a powerful committee.
But the way things are shaping up, it’s possible he will never get the gavel.
House Democrats grant chairmanships based on seniority, which rewards long-tenured lawmakers. When the party regained control of the House in January, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a key post with major say over Pentagon policy and the military’s nearly $700 billion annual budget.
For years two lawmakers were tied for next in line to lead Armed Services when Smith eventually steps aside: Langevin and Congresswoman Susan Davis, D-California, both of whom took office in 2001.
But on Wednesday, Davis announced she will retire rather than seek re-election in 2020 — clearing the way for Langevin to be Smith’s successor.
In a statement Thursday, Langevin didn’t comment directly on the change in the committee pecking order, but said it had been “a true honor” to work alongside Davis for the past two decades. “I wish her all the best in her upcoming retirement, and I look forward to working together for the remainder of her term and moving forward,” he said.
However, Langevin probably shouldn’t start printing new business cards just yet. “It could be a long wait for the gavel,” said Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
The 55-year-old Smith is new to the chairmanship and likely in no hurry to give it up. Moreover, it’s possible Langevin’s time in the House could run out before Smith’s does: Rhode Island is expected to lose one of its two House seats following the 2020 Census count, which would mean Langevin and Congressman David Cicilline couldn’t both remain in office after 2022.
“Not only do Democrats lack term limits for committee chairmanships, but Adam Smith is actually slightly younger than Langevin and has greater job security, given that Washington state isn’t losing a seat and Rhode Island is on track to lose its second district,” Wasserman said.
Nevertheless, it’s now possible to imagine a scenario where Rhode Islanders could be simultaneously leading the Armed Services Committees in both chambers of Congress; U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is already the top Democrat on the military panel in the Senate. (Reed will become chairman if his party wins back the Senate.)
The shakeup in the House dramatizes how Rhode Island would lose influence on Capitol Hill by sending either of its two congressmen home after 2022. Voters would be abandoning either a future chairman of a top committee (Langevin) or a rising member of Democratic leadership sometimes mentioned as a potential speaker (Cicilline).
WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said the potential of becoming chairman could make Langevin more likely to try and stay in Congress. “If that’s the case, you could end up with a primary for Congress — you could,” he said.
Still, Fleming remains doubtful that a Langevin-Cicilline primary will actually come to pass. “There’s a lot of things that could happen between now and 2022,” he said.
Langevin is also a senior Democratic member of his other committee, Homeland Security, where he ranks third behind Chairman Bernie Thompson and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook