Candice Miller has a special status in the new Republican-run U.S. House: She’s the only female lawmaker in the party to head a congressional committee.
Her domain? House Administration, a panel known more for tending to granular details – overseeing federal elections, parking lots and cafeterias – than grabbing headlines.
“I don’t want to diminish her position but it’s not Ways and Means, it’s not the Budget Committee,” said Debbie Walsh, head of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It’s much more administrative.”
Even as Republicans seek to attract more female voters and fend off attacks from Democrats on women’s issues, the lack of women heading the House’s 22 committees shows the party has a long way to go to catch up to the minority party, Walsh said.
“It is shocking to think there is only one woman in the entire House that holds a committee chair,” Walsh said. “Republicans had an opportunity to put women in leadership positions on committees and have made a conscious choice not to do so.”
Indeed, it’s less common for a female Republican to get a committee gavel than it is for a woman to run a major U.S. corporation. Miller’s lone chairmanship means that 4.5 percent of the 22 Republican women serving in the House will head panels during the congressional session that began last week.
That compares with 25, or 5 percent, of Fortune 500 company chief executive officers who are women.
Republicans have made strides in responding to criticism that the House party leadership included few women. In 2012, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington was elected head of the Republican Conference, in charge of messaging and communications. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas was chosen as conference vice chairwoman, and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina as secretary.
Miller, 60, first became head of the House Administration panel in 2013 – the only woman to head a committee in that Congress, too – after losing a bid to run the Committee on Homeland Security. She was defeated by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, although Miller, a Michigan lawmaker now starting her seventh term in the House, had been in Congress two years longer than he had.
Miller said in an interview that she’s “delighted” to run the Administration committee and that the panel’s duties, which include oversight of security on the House side of the U.S. Capitol complex and the Federal Election Commission, weren’t belittled until she took over the job. The comments come mainly from people who want to attack Republicans in general, she said.
“This was always considered a pretty powerful committee,” she said. “A lot of people don’t consider federal elections a token issue.”
In Miller’s failed bid to run the Homeland Security panel, she may have been hurt more by geography than gender, said Michele Swers, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.
When she competed for the Homeland Security gavel, two other Michigan Republicans were leading desirable House panels: Fred Upton at Energy and Commerce and Dave Camp at Ways and Means, which is now run by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
“The center of the Republican Party’s power is not Michigan, it’s more somewhere like Texas,” Swers said. “There are regional balances, ideological balances and other factors to consider as well like how much money you raise, how close you are to leadership. So it’s really quite difficult to say this is necessarily gender discrimination.”
Some Republican women say the reason for the shortage of female House committee chiefs is simple: Not enough want the jobs.
Not a single woman competed for a committee leadership chair this past year, said Jenkins, the No. 2 woman in the party leadership.
“It’s kind of hard to win a race for a gavel if you don’t run,” she said.
Democrats have elevated more women because there are more of them in the party caucus and they’ve been there longer, Foxx said.
Seniority, a major factor in determining committee chairmanships, is an obstacle in both parties.
“It’s not that there is overt discrimination or attempts to keep them from achieving leadership status, but there are a lot of men in line ahead of them,” said Jennifer Lawless, a government professor at American University in Washington.
Just two House Republican women – Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Kay Granger of Texas – were elected before 2000. Granger, who took office in 1997, leads an Appropriations subcommittee; the panel itself is run by Hal Rogers of Kentucky, one of the chamber’s most senior members.
Ros-Lehtinen, who has been in Congress since 1989, ran the House Foreign Affairs committee from 2011 to 2013.
In contrast, 20 female Democrats in the House were elected prior to 2000. Yet seniority is an issue for the minority party, too.
Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, elected in 1992, lost a bid this session to be the leading Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, who defeated her, has four more years of experience.
Eshoo was backed by Nancy Pelosi, the chamber’s top Democrat. Pelosi became the first woman House speaker in 2007, which gives the party something to boast about, said American University’s Lawless. She held the job until 2011, when Democrats lost the majority.
“They have had women in the highest echelons of the party,” Lawless said. “Having achieved those milestones does give them some degree of credibility.”
Even so, when it comes to female committee chiefs, Democrats aren’t that far ahead. When they controlled the House between 2009 and 2011, three women ran committees. That’s about 5.4 percent of the Democrats’ 56 female members at the time.
Women do better in the Senate. Democrats, who held the chamber’s majority from 2007 until ceding control to Republicans last week, had seven of 16 female senators from their party running committees.
Republicans have two of six women in the Senate with gavels this session: Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who heads the chamber’s Energy and Natural Resources panel, and Maine’s Susan Collins, who runs the Special Aging panel.
Still, if money equals power, few female senators will have seats on two of the most influential panels.
Just two of the 20 women senators – Democrats Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Maria Cantwell of Washington – are on the 26-member Finance Committee, which is responsible for taxes, trade and health care. And two of the 22 members on the Banking Committee are women, both also Democrats: North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren.
Cynthia Terrell, a founder of FairVote, a group whose goals include electing more women to public office, said the U.S. is still a long way from having women constitute 50 percent of Congress.
At the current growth rate, she said, “We’re still about 300 years from parity.”
(With assistance from Richard Rubin, Roxana Tiron and Derek Wallbank in Washington.)
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