Rules Fight Coming

Posted February 7, 2003 at 6:21pm

With opposition mounting from top House Democrats, two rank-and-file Members face an uphill battle when the Caucus votes Wednesday on their controversial rule changes designed to redistribute power to less-senior lawmakers.

Reps. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) and Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.) are each proposing amendments to the Democratic Caucus rules. Both Members believe their proposals will pass, even though they lack support from many senior Members.

“We won’t know until we actually have the vote,” Lipinski said of his amendment’s chances, but added: “There’s considerable support for this amendment and I think there are legitimate arguments to be made in favor it.”

Lipinski wants to redistribute Democratic committee funds and give subcommittee ranking members more budget authority. The move would give subcommittee ranking members power over two-thirds of Democratic committee funds, while the full committee ranking members would get oversight over one-third of the budget.

In most cases, ranking members of the full committees now control the entire budget of each panel.

Snyder, meanwhile, is seeking to do away with a grandfather clause in the rules. A change would force nine veteran members on the Energy and Commerce Committee to give up their other committee posts. The move, according to proponents, would open up more slots for less senior Members on key committees.

“This issue has gone on for years,” Snyder said. “Within our own Caucus we need to treat each other fairly and need to look at ways that all Members get to participate in a robust manner, not just the more senior Members.”

Both ideas will first get a review on Tuesday by the Democratic Organization, Study and Review Committee, which will then make recommendations to the full Caucus.

Several Democratic sources predicted that both amendments would ultimately fall short in votes before the full Caucus on Wednesday. Insiders said the Snyder proposal appears to have more support than Lipinski’s move.

One Democratic leadership aide said “nobody knows” for sure whether either will pass. “We’re arguing the merits,” said the aide, who added that the leadership had not whipped votes. “But a lot of people are pretty unhappy about it.”

This aide said the Snyder amendment is not necessary since Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is already trying to broaden junior Members’ participation, while the Lipinski change would hurt the limited strength of the minority.

The Lipinski amendment is meeting criticism from full committee ranking members and others, who argue the move would further weaken the minority party (already armed with less money and staff) by decentralizing resources. Lipinski served as the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation in the 107th Congress.

“It’s one of the worst ideas that any Democrat has come up with in a long time,” charged a senior Democratic committee staffer. “The Republicans already have twice as much committee staff — and our response is to take the staff we have and fragment that up into smaller pieces. It’s simply not practical.”

But Lipinski countered that his amendment is about fairness and broadening opportunities for rank-and-file Members. And, despite the criticism, he said it would not weaken committees nor would it lead to staff cuts since most subcommittee ranking members would keep the same committee staff on board.

“To a certain extent, that argument isn’t quite genuine,” said Lipinski. “There’s no reason to assume that ranking committee members would just summarily dismiss people.”

He added, “I believe it’s a way of decentralizing, democratizing and giving more input to Members. It’s a way of giving more empowerment to the rank and file. I’ve always believed that the more people involved, the more emphasis can be put on things.”

But Jim Berard, spokesman for the Democratic staff of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said his boss, Transportation ranking member James Oberstar (D-Minn.), believes the idea could lead to “a tremendous loss of expertise on our side.”

“Oberstar feels our strength is in our institutional memory and this may lead to a wholesale turnover in professional staff that we really can’t afford,” Berard said.

The Snyder change is designed to do away with a provision in the rules allowing a handful of Members to stay on the Energy and Commerce panel and keep an additional committee assignment.

Those Democratic Members are: Reps. Rick Boucher (Va.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Bart Gordon (Tenn.), Ralph Hall (Texas), Ed Markey (Mass.), Frank Pallone (N.J.), Edolphus Towns (N.Y.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.).

Snyder is pressing ahead with his change, even though Pelosi has strongly enforced House rules limiting Members to two committee assignments and separately urged senior lawmakers to relinquish second committee slots.

Democratic rules generally prohibit Members serving on the exclusive panels — Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce — from holding another committee assignment.

Snyder stressed that “there’s nothing personal about” his proposal.

“I’m just looking at structuring the rules in such a way that we treat everybody fairly,” he said. “This is what everyone else has to go through except for these nine Members. Life is about choices and everyone else in the Caucus has to make these.”

But those opposing the Snyder amendment say it isn’t necessary because Pelosi already is opening up slots for newer Members, and the proposal would only make available positions on less-sought-after panels. And, they argue, the Members affected have valuable institutional memories on their second committees that shouldn’t be taken away.

“This would only produce openings on committees that weren’t filled up even when we went through the process of filling up committee assignments,” said the leadership aide.

Added another senior Democratic staffer: “Clearly there is a genuine and strong interest in the Caucus for maximizing the talent of all the Democratic Members, but the consensus emerging is that the Snyder proposal doesn’t help achieve that goal.”