For 20, a New Year’s Boost in House Legislative Sway

How the winners of top committee assignments made their own luck

Keep an eye peeled for these House members with plum new committee assignments, from left to right, first row: Pete Aguilar, Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, Katherine M. Clark, Ryan A. Costello, Carlos Curbelo; second row: Suzan DelBene, Debbie Dingell, Brian Higgins, John Moolenaar, Grace Meng; third row: Dan Newhouse, Scott Peters, Mark Pocan, Raul Ruiz, David Schweikert; fourth row: Terri A. Sewell, Scott Taylor, Tim Walberg, Jackie Walorski and Mimi Walters. (Bill Clark, Meredith Dake-O’Connor and Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos. Scott Taylor courtesy Scott Taylor for U.S. Congress)

Specialization seasoned with seniority is the surest recipe for a meaningful legislative career in the House, which is more than big enough to swallow all the dilettantes and short-timers without a trace. It’s finding a substantive niche, then fitting in over the long haul, that proves perennially frustrating for many members. 

But the goal of becoming a successful and substantive lawmaker just got a whole lot easier for a score of them.

Ten from each party, only one of them a freshman and only two who were initially elected before this decade, have been newly assigned to the committees that stand head and shoulders above the rest because of the breadth of their jurisdiction.

Upgrading panel assignments in the Senate is often a signal of either blossoming national ambition or imminent electoral distress. But maneuvering to claim a seat on one of the House’s three “A” or “exclusive” committees is more regularly the work of members positioned to contentedly pursue their current careers for the long term — unless the fundraising windfall and lobbyists’ fawning starts planting thoughts of statewide office in their heads.

The three panels are Ways and Means, which writes tax, trade, Social Security, Medicare and social safety net legislation; Appropriations, which apportions more than $1 trillion annually to every discretionary federal program and agency; and Energy and Commerce, which has jurisdiction that sprawls over most aspects of telecommunications, consumer protection, health, environmental and energy policy.

In some recent years past, the party in power has given some of its committee plums to junior lawmakers in obvious political peril, in hopes their paths to re-election would be eased by the extra publicity and campaign contributions. Other times, big classes of newcomers were able to muscle some of their own into the most prestigious assignments.

Minimal beginner’s luck

Neither phenomenon materialized this year. While a handful of the 20 who secured the premier seats represent districts that could become competitive in a tumultuous year, only one is already clearly vulnerable to defeat next time: Republican Carlos Curbelo of Miami, who’s won both his terms with less than 55 percent in a district that tilts Democratic and was tapped for Ways and Means.

And the smallest freshman class in a dozen years was able to get just a single newcomer into the top committee ranks: Republican Scott Taylor of Virginia Beach landed at Appropriations, where he’ll focus on steering as much spending as possible to the military bases and defense contractors of his naval-hub Tidewater district, and also the entire state.   

Almost all the lucky winners were members entering their second, third or fourth terms. The exceptions were Republican Tim Walberg of southern Michigan, who’s been in office for all but two of the past 10 years and got an Energy and Commerce spot, and seven-term Democrat Brian Higgins of Buffalo, New York, who’s returning to Ways and Means after six years away. (Republicans snagged his seat for themselves when they took back the House.)

The top-flight spots went overwhelmingly to loyalists from their parties’ mainstreams — reliably liberal Democrats and establishment conservative Republicans.

The New Democrat Coalition, which represents itself as the voice of the party’s 54 most business-friendly moderates, saw a quartet of members placed on the panels: Washington’s Suzan DelBene and Alabama's Terri A. Sewell  landed at Ways and Means, while Californians Pete Aguilar got Appropriations and Scott Peters was put on Energy and Commerce.

And the confrontationally conservative Freedom Caucus, after making a concerted push last year to gain a toehold on the Republican Steering Committee, the group of lawmakers who dole out committee assignments, saw only one of its 32 members newly placed on a prestigious panel: David Schweikert of Arizona got the final available opening on Ways and Means.

Caucus members, however, were slotted into three of the 10 openings for GOP lawmakers on Financial Services, which stands just behind the Big Three in cachet and desirability — in part because membership essentially guarantees a steady flow of campaign cash from the commercial banks, investment firms, insurance companies, asset managers and even payday lenders under the committee’s purview. (Democrats haven’t filled their spot on that panel.)

Location, location, location

Beyond ideological reliability, the lawmakers making the assignments look at a wholly subjective set of factors, from demographic diversity to geographic balance.

This year, one-third of the prizes went to women, though they only hold one-fifth of all the seats.

With Californians holding one in eight House seats, they always do well at the committee placement game and managed to maneuver four of their own into the most desirable openings: Peters, Aguilar and both Democrat Raul Ruiz and Republican Mimi Walters at Energy and Commerce.

Michigan, on the other hand, has seen half its 14 seats turn over in the past two elections, and yet two others from the state beside Walberg got plums. Republican John Moolenaar, previously a prominent player in Michigan legislative fiscal policy, snagged the state’s first seat on Appropriations since 2010. And Democrat Debbie Dingell fulfilled her destiny with an assignment to Energy and Commerce, where her husband and predecessor served for 58 years and was chairman for 16 of them.

Regionalism seemed to play an obvious part in most of the other assignments. Sewell at Ways and Means and Georgia Republican Earl. L. “Buddy” Carter at Energy and Commerce, for example, will be able to partly rectify longstanding underrepresentation on those panels from the Deep South.

But other postings were more about preserving the status quo or returning to tradition. Jackie Walorski was able to hold a Ways and Means spot for Indiana after fellow Republican Todd Young moved to the Senate, while Ryan Costello laid claim to eastern Pennsylvania’s customary GOP seat at Energy and Commerce. And Democrats used their Appropriations slots to provide the traditional third seat for New York (Grace Meng), restore the spot Wisconsin had from 1969 through 2010 (Mark Pocan) and assign someone (Katherine M. Clark) from Massachusetts, which had had a place on the panel from at least the late 1920s until four years ago.

Many don’t even try for these “exclusive” panels, and for them, there are plenty of good seats still available. Both parties’ byzantine and secretive committee assignment processes continue this week.

Members with military bases in their districts will end up disproportionately on Armed Services. Only the most socially conservative Republicans and the most progressive Democrats need apply for Judiciary. Members from the West, whether environmentally minded Democrats or private-property-rights Republicans, will stock the dais at Natural Resources.

And those who don’t get anything that remotely suits them are sure to start lobbying now for the committee of their dreams come 2018.

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