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Weak Committees Empower the Partisans

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I have lamented the decline of committees in Congress over the years but was jolted into a new awareness of it recently while perusing Roll Call’s “Fabulous 50” list of “Capitol Hill’s leading Democratic and Republican staffers.”

After sifting through the latest list to determine how many of the power players I knew, I suddenly realized how few committee staff are listed.

By my count, only 11 of the 50 (22 percent) are committee hires. Nearly all the rest, 38 (76 percent), are leadership or campaign committee staff — four of whom have the word “communications” in their titles. (Nowadays, the message is the message.)

I seemed to recall a time when committee staff dominated Roll Call’s power elite roster. So, I asked my editors at Roll Call if they could muster a Fabulous 50 list from around 1980. I learned that the first Fab 50 list ran in 1988. It had 27 committee staffers (54 percent) and 21 leadership staff (42 percent). A year earlier, however, Roll Call ran a precursor “Powers Behind the Powers” list of 29 staffers, 19 of whom (66 percent) were committee staff.

This should come as no great surprise. Political scientists have long recognized the rise of partisanship and the powers of party leaders and their staff during the post-reform Congresses of the 1980s.

The Congressional reform revolution of the 1970s was, after all, primarily about the overthrow of conservative Southern committee chairmen by liberal Democrats and the eventual replacement of committee government by party government through a reinvigorated Democratic Caucus and strong Speaker as party leader.

That trend continued when Republicans took power. One of the findings of a House Republican committee-reform task force in 1995 was that as party leadership becomes more powerful, committees become relatively weaker. That is what we have witnessed during the past 30 years, and there is little indication it is decelerating.

A second indicator of the rise of party leadership vis-à-vis committees is the number of important bills considered in Congress that are not reported by a committee. In identifying important bills, I looked at those given a special rule by the House Rules Committee, thereby eliminating minor bills considered under a suspension of the rules or by unanimous consent.

At this point in the 103rd Congress (1993-94), the last Democratic Congress before the Republican takeover in 1995, only about 9 percent of the bills with special rules were unreported. By the end of the first session of the 104th Congress under Republicans, the percentage of unreported bills rose to 14 percent. Fast-forward to the two Democratic Congresses in this decade, the 110th and 111th (2007-10), and the percentage of unreported bills jumped to 21 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

That trend continues unabated in this 112th Congress, once again under Republican control, with unreported measures accounting for 30 percent of all bills with special rules. Moreover, unreported bills account for a major share of closed rules (those allowing no floor amendments): 70 percent of closed rules to date have been for unreported bills, compared with 54 percent and 55 percent in the last two Democratic Congresses.

Put this data together and you get the picture: More bills are being brought to the floor without the benefit of committee hearings, amendments or reports, primarily because they are party-driven. The fact that amendments are prohibited on most is further evidence that they are being presented as party policy statements for up-or-down votes and not as serious legislative endeavors to be perfected through committee and floor amendments.

I call these “bumper sticker” bills because they are convenient campaign devices that enable Members to register their concern (or outrage) on the record, even if it’s clear the bills will never become law.

Examples of these unreported, no-amendment bills abound in the House this session, including repealing the 2010 health care overhaul (without a promised replacement), abolishing the presidential campaign fund, defunding NPR and Planned Parenthood and voting on four war powers options on Libya. Equally noteworthy are the unreported bills that do succeed, such as the omnibus continuing appropriations bill and the debt limit deal — both negotiated in private by party leaders, not through committees. (Now, on to the supra-committee.)

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) came into office with the intention of restoring regular order by giving committees a greater measure of independence and responsibility, and he has succeeded to some extent. However, he has also found that good intentions can be sidetracked by public opinion, internal party factions and pressure groups that demand immediate action without the benefit of committee consideration.

In fairness, more than two-thirds of major bills are still reported by committees, along with explanatory reports. However, the deviations from regular order that do occur tend to exacerbate partisan warfare and diminish committee authority. Reversing this trend can go a long way to restoring integrity to policymaking.

Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a visiting scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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