Gazing back on the 112th Congress, one thing is unmistakable: It was the least productive and most dysfunctional Congress in two generations. From the debt ceiling debacle to the fiscal cliff to the inability to pass appropriations bills, the legislative branch was in a state of perpetual gridlock.
Congressional inaction can be blamed, in part, on ideological polarization. However the previous few Congresses were likewise highly polarized and remained fairly productive.
What distinguishes the 112th from earlier Congresses? A moratorium on appropriations earmarks. An election victory fueled partly by anti-earmark rhetoric led the House Republican leadership to propose an outright ban on earmarks, and a reluctant Democratic Senate went along.
Deprived of an important tool for coalition-building, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and the Republican leadership turned to a blunter instrument: stripping partisan prodigals of key committee assignments.
Political scientists have long considered committee assignments a “property right.” Once assigned to a committee, the seat “belonged” to the member until he or she abandoned the slot.
There are few examples of members being deprived of a committee seat. The last high-profile case was in 1995 when Mark W. Neumann, R-Wis., was temporarily stripped of his assignment to Appropriations after failing to follow the lead of Chairman Robert L. Livingston, R-La., and Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. That case resulted in a terrific uproar from the Republican Conference, and the leadership backed down, simply removing Neumann from the Defense Subcommittee. This time around the response of rank-and-file Republicans has been muted, and the leadership seems unlikely to reverse course.
There are limits to Boehner’s committee assignment gambit. He can use it only once on each member he seeks to punish. Once deprived of a key committee assignment, most members do not have a second that can be taken away. Using the removal power too frequently will cause a backlash among an increasing cadre of dispossessed Republicans. The strategy will be effective only if Republican members believe that the leadership is willing to use its removal power and are thereby unwilling to cross the leadership on difficult votes.
Much of the important decision-making on budgetary matters is now determined directly by leadership — rather than through the formerly powerful standing committees — reducing committee assignments as a viable tool to sanction wayward members.
Finally, anti-institutional tea party members might not value committee assignments highly and might be unfazed by such threats.
Compared to committee assignments, earmarks allow leaders a more surgical approach to fashioning coalitions. Earmarks can be used to incrementally entice members to support the leadership on politically risky votes. Voting in favor of the fiscal cliff deal might have been the “right thing to do,” but for many Republicans an “aye” vote promised nothing but grief at home and nothing positive in return. It is no wonder Boehner was forced to pass the bill with Democratic votes.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.