Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., need not be too covert in his campaign to become the next chairman of the House intelligence committee.
But he might need to call in some chits.
The 40-year-old conservative faces some potentially formidable competition, as ambitious GOP lawmakers eye the pending vacancy atop what’s formally called the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It’s a hot spot that’s intensely private yet made for prime time.
And unlike some Capitol Hill leadership competitions, the contenders are vying for the support of only one man.
“The most important thing is, the speaker has to have a high confidence level in you,” Nunes said in an interview. “He has to trust you.”
If Republicans retain control of the House following the November elections, as appears likely, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will unilaterally select the next intelligence committee chairman. The current chairman, Michigan Republican and former FBI special agent Mike Rogers, is retiring to become a radio talk show host.
Florida Republican Jeff Miller and New York Republican Peter King have also publicly voiced interest in the slot.
“I would certainly appreciate being considered,” King said. “It would be an honor.”
Seniority, that old-school political virtue, doesn’t matter much in this somewhat unique competition. Instead, a blend of party loyalty, policy chops, public presence and an intangible personal chemistry will mean the difference between the gavel and the back bench.
“I have a good relationship with the speaker,” Nunes said. “He is one of my close personal friends.”
Past candidates have learned just how important it is to have good relations with their party’s leader.
Former Democratic California Congresswoman Jane Harman, despite her seniority and a notably aggressive campaign, was bluntly passed over for the 2007 chairmanship by the House’s top Democrat, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, also of Californian. Harman is more centrist than the liberal Pelosi, but their relationship was complicated for many reasons beyond ideology.
Party fundraising provides one test for those wanting promotion, as both parties expect committee leaders to pitch in. In this, Nunes seems to have an edge.
Through his leadership political action committee, New PAC, Nunes has funneled more than $560,000 to fellow Republicans since 2009. He has made additional contributions through his own campaign committee.
King only established a leadership PAC three months ago. His American Leadership Now PAC hasn’t yet reported any contributions to other Republicans.
A third committee member who has voiced interest in the chairmanship, Florida Republican Jeff Miller, has contributed about $11,000 to fellow Republicans through his Advance the Majority PAC since 2009. In addition, King, Nunes and Miller have all contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars through their separate campaign treasuries to the National Republican Campaign Committee, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group.
“No one is going to be selected for a leadership position if you’re not taking care of business on the political side,” Nunes said. “I’ve checked that box.”
King is the only one of the three with military experience, having served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. None worked in the intelligence community prior to joining Congress.
The 21-member House intelligence panel is currently divided between 12 Republicans and nine Democrats. It meets, usually in secret, once or twice a week on Capitol Hill, in addition to sessions at intelligence community sites. Members read daily intelligence summaries skimmed from open sources, are privy to highly classified documents and travel to places often described, generically, as something like “Southeast Asia.”
“It takes a substantial commitment of time,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who serves on the committee. “The data flow is enormous, and the agencies are behemoths.”
Oversight is one part of the job. On Wednesday, the committee summoned for the third time former CIA official Michael Morell to talk about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans.
“After today, I hope we can get back to our more pressing work,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the panel’s senior Democrat.
Bipartisanship, though, often prevails during the committee’s core work of authorizing budgets and policies for the 17 agencies of the intelligence community. Tellingly, the committee approved its last intelligence authorization bill last November by a voice vote. Democrats used their “minority views” section of the bill’s report to praise rather than denounce the legislation.
“I have always been impressed by him,” Schiff said of Nunes. “He works in a very bipartisan way.”
King, who turns 70 on Saturday, served as chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security until term limits forced him out. He appears frequently on cable television, especially on Fox News.
King’s name pops up 1,097 times when searched for on Fox News’ website. Nunes’ name appears 41 times.
Last September, unexpectedly, King showed up in New Hampshire to declare his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. The 11th-term congressman is not considered a front-runner.
Miller chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Nunes chairs the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“At the end of the day, I’m about policy,” Nunes said, “and the intelligence world is the pinnacle of policy.”