In a secret ballot Wednesday afternoon, the House Republican leadership ousted Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Christopher Smith, R-N.J., and replaced him with Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana. At first glance, dumping Smith in favor of one of his colleagues might seem out of keeping for the Republicans, who normally avoid infighting. But Wednesday's vote wasn't so much a fight as a takedown.
Rumors that Smith's head was on the chopping block started gaining steam shortly after Republicans picked up House seats in November. "Removing an incumbent is highly unusual," the APs Jim Abrams noted yesterday, "but Smith has been criticized for not being a team player."
In other words, he'd been far too good at his job. Beloved by veterans' groups, Smith routinely cajoled, bludgeoned and shamed fellow Republicans into dramatically increasing funding for veterans' initiatives. Within months of assuming the chairmanship in 2001, Smith raised eyebrows by convincing his fellow congressmen to support a V.A. budget windfall of more than a billion dollars, and he has won regular victories since then. One of the reasons for his effectiveness was that he wasn't afraid to accuse his own party of stinginess in front of the DC press corps. "You can get awfully sick and awfully diseased waiting that long to get health care," he chided in July of 2003 when the GOP-controlled Congress' decision not to increase funding for the V.A looked like it would create a six-month wait for hospital beds.
It's no surprise that Smith's tactics earned him the enmity of Republican leaders in the House, and with the election safely behind them, they no longer had to fear that ousting Smith would trigger the campaign-season wrath of veterans' groups. Yesterday's secret ballot vote will likely be ratified today at a full meeting of House Republicans, and for good measure, Smith will probably be stripped of even the seat on the Veterans' Affairs Committee that he has held for twenty-four years.
Other stray Republicans, take note.