It was originally reported in some media outlets as an act of generosity, as though Lindsey Graham had decided to yield his prize gavel as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee back to his very senior predecessor, Chuck Grassley, out of southern courtliness or Confucian respect for the old. But what really happened is that the 86-year-old Grassley, who is expected by many to retire at the end of his current term in December of 2022 (he has yet to announce a decision on that), is exercising his bumping rights under the Senate seniority system to serve at least two more years as chairman of Judiciary — if, of course, Republicans maintain control of the Senate next year. Why? Did the old goat change his mind about handing Judiciary off to Graham in 2018 so that he could chair Finance? No, having served as Finance chair for four years earlier in his endless Senate tenure, Grassley is hitting Republican Conference’s six-year term limit there at the end of 2020 and is trading in one gavel for another, since he has two more years to serve as Judiciary chairman (his last two years in the Senate) before hitting that term limit (thanks to Bloomberg reporter Nancy Ognanovich for explaining the details to me by phone today).
Word is Grassley notified Graham of his intentions some time ago, and in fact, I’d guess they had an understanding about it by the time the Iowan handed over Judiciary to the South Carolinian, since they knew Grassley only had two years to go at Finance. So the rest of this is all Senate Tradition BS, and for all we know, Graham is privately seething about it. He does not have the seniority to bump anyone else out of a chairmanship, though he does chair an Appropriations subcommittee reflecting his foreign-policy interests (State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs). He’s up for reelection in 2020, so this is not an ideal time to get a demotion.
Speaking of 2020, there’s a misunderstanding kicking around on Twitter about the timing and significance of this switcheroo that’s a much bigger deal than whether Graham jumped or was pushed: the idea that Grassley as Judiciary chairman will be playing a big role in the (probably) upcoming Trump impeachment trial in the Senate.
First, Graham will remain Judiciary chairman through 2020; the change will take place at the end of that year. And second, the Senate Judiciary Committee plays no distinctive role in impeachment trials. Under the standing Senate rules, the leadership can, if a motion passes allowing it, appoint a special committee of senators to receive evidence and hear witnesses — but that’s mostly done for cases involving judges, where nobody wants to force the full Senate to abandon all business to do those chores. Almost certainly (as in the past), the full Senate will conduct the full presidential trial. In neither event is Judiciary in the driver’s seat. Old folks who remember Sam Ervin and the Senate Watergate Committee that was central to Nixon’s downfall may not realize that while the Senate’s inquiry produced evidence that led to articles of impeachment, it was conducted prior to and entirely separate from the impeachment process.
So the Grassley-Graham shuffle won’t have any immediate effect on the Fate of the Republic. If Republicans do retain control of the Senate, it does mean that we will experience at least two more years of Grassley’s plodding rhetoric and avuncular courtesy during judicial confirmation hearings, which will likely be tense no matter who wins the presidency next year. Graham will be free to polish his skills at demagoguery as a regular member of the committee, assuming he survives his own reelection challenge back home.
This post has been corrected to note that Senator Grassley has not yet announced a decision about retiring or running for reelection in 2022. We regret the error.