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One year after Democrats regained control of the House and the coveted committee gavels that accompany majority status, Members and aides describe a more collaborative process between panel chairmen and the leadership, with a greater emphasis on unity than in their previous tenure running the chamber.
While the natural order of Senate business means very little of that chamber’s legislation will likely find success beyond the committee level this year, intraparty collaboration in the House could lead to far more accomplishments on that side of the Capitol.
“There is a tremendous amount of communication between leadership and committee chairmen,” said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In addition to weekly chairmen’s meetings with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), aides cite frequent ad hoc meetings with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during the first half of the 110th Congress.
“They share goals,” the aide added, noting that while leaders may set an overall agenda, the detailed work is still largely left in the hands of the individual panels. “Committee chairmen do the heavy lifting when it comes to putting together legislation.”
Those efforts are not a conscious effort to eliminate the powerful fiefdoms that committees once managed, the aide insisted, but are the result of a focus on finding agreement within the often divisive Democratic Caucus itself.
“When Republicans were in control, there was a small group in the Majority Leader’s office dictating what to do,” asserted one Democratic lawmaker, referring to the seemingly tight rein held by then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) under Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
The Member, who spoke on background, noted the Democrats have sought to avoid sidelining chairmen in that way: “All the policy decisions aren’t being made by few people.”
Despite those efforts to establish a new order, however, the process has at times drawn criticisms from rank-and-file Members who assert the collaborative arrangement has actually reduced the power granted to chairmen and senior lawmakers, while shifting undue influence to freshmen and other vulnerable Members to determine what legislation moves in the chamber.
There is some indication Democratic leaders have sought to at least moderately curb the autonomy of their chairmen.
Taking a page from the former Republican majority, Democrats maintained term limits in the House rules for the 110th Congress, limiting chairmen to six years in a panel’s top post.
“It’s a good government rule intended that no one person has an unreasonable amount of power in Congress and Democrats didn’t change the rule because it would have been an embarrassment for them to do so,” asserted a senior Republican aide, who asked not to be identified. “I think everyone understands Republicans put it in place because we believed it was a reasonable check on the power of any one individual to hold.”
But Democratic chairmen have disagreed, publicly calling for the repeal of the rule, although House leaders are unlikely to reconsider the matter until the start of the 111th Congress.
More notably, however, has been the willingness of Democratic leaders, Pelosi in particular, to insert themselves into legislative minutiae on major legislation, including the children's health insurance bill and energy legislation.
In the Senate, where the floor can be expected to be tied in partisan knots until after Election Day, the chamber’s committee rooms may be the only place outside the press galleries where either Democrats or Republicans will find a platform to mount substantive defenses of their priorities this year.
Like last year, Democrats are expected to use the committees to emphasize oversight and the pursuit of key economic and environmental policies this year, as well as efforts to contain President Bush’s prosecution of the Iraq War. Health care, labor and education reforms long dormant under Republican control of Congress also will likely be continued priorities in the chamber’s committees, particularly those that fit either into the party’s broader economic reform package or the broad-brush policy papers put forth by the eventual Democratic presidential candidate.
But aside from at least a few of the yearly appropriations bills and those measures that fit into the economic stimulus package, few if any bills are expected to make it to the floor for little more than a ceremonial death.
“Arguably the action will be in the committees since what are we going to get done on the floor?” one senior Democratic leadership aide said, adding that “it will be pretty bitter on the floor, as it is every year before an election.”
But committee work is inherently less sexy to politicians than floor fights, and it always has been a struggle for committee chairmen to gain broad public attention for hearings that do not include sex, scandal or steroids.
One exception to the rule last year was the Environment and Public Works Committee, where the two most unlikely of bedfellows — Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — teamed up to produce some of the year’s best committee-level fireworks and actual accomplishments.
Indeed, Boxer’s hearings on global warming were made famous when she and Inhofe began sniping over the testimony of former Vice President Al Gore, and the two had repeated clashes over the year.
But at the same time, they also teamed up to push through a massive Water Resources Development Act reauthorization — no small feat for two lawmakers so diametrically opposed they would seem to have difficulty agreeing on the time. The passage of the WRDA bill was a classic example of committee-level negotiating helping to pave the way for a hard push on the chamber floor, and it was made all the more remarkable by the increasingly anti-earmark and pork climate on Capitol Hill.
“Boxer and Inhofe made more headlines than your normal non-judiciary committee would,” the Democratic aide noted, predicting that election year pressures will likely again mean more attention for the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Democrats are expected to continue their emphasis on oversight and investigations of administration policies and activities, aides said. But with the Bush administration in its final lame-duck year and the election likely to dominate any discussion of politics, it is unclear how much of that work will bubble to the top.
A second stumbling block could be the fact that the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who has endorsed both President Bush’s handling of the war and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president. Should McCain — who has allied himself to Bush over the past year — be the GOP nominee, Democrats worry Lieberman could pull even more punches than he has when it comes to oversight of the war and the Bush administration’s homeland security policies and practices.
Additionally, while most of the working press will continue to cover legislative and policy development and activities on the committee, with much of the political press corps focused on the campaign trail, aides said it could be tough for either side to build the sort of public attention needed to propel serious legislative proposals out of committee.
Like last year when partisan warfare on the floor eclipsed nearly everything else done in the chamber, leaders in both parties will face that age-old philosophical challenge — if a real policy debate happens in a Senate subcommittee and no one is there, does it really matter?