Rules Fight Redux

Posted February 28, 2003 at 6:20pm

A move by an Energy and Commerce Committee member to claim a top subcommittee slot on another panel has reignited an internal fight over fairness in House Democratic committee assignments. In response, a group of junior lawmakers is launching a petition drive to force the Caucus to re-examine the issue.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) sent a letter last week and has indicated he will today begin seeking 50 signatures from fellow Members on a petition calling for the Caucus to once again consider ways to give less senior Members a better shot at obtaining plum committee assignments. Supporters of the move claim they have greater backing within the Caucus to address the topic and perhaps enough to adopt an amendment giving junior Members a better shot at top panel positions.

Blumenauer said that while he’s not necessarily interested in bringing up amendments already voted on by the Caucus, he does believe there’s a need for more discussion. And he didn’t rule out the possibility of proposing another amendment designed to give junior Members a better crack at committee seats.

“I don’t think we’ve finished that conversation,” Blumenauer said. “I have a keen interest in what we do and how we do it.”

The issue had been all but dead after the Caucus defeated an amendment offered earlier this month by Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) to do away with a grandfather clause in the rules which allowed nine Members on Energy and Commerce to hold another committee slot. Newer Members on that committee — an exclusive — are prohibited from holding a second committee post.

But the new effort was sparked after Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who sits on Energy and Commerce, “unexpectedly and against leadership’s advice” claimed a Resources subcommittee ranking position just after the Caucus vote on the Snyder plan, Blumenauer said in his letter. He wrote that Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) had been seeking the Resources subcommittee on fisheries conservation, wildlife and oceans job, but Pallone instead grabbed the position without ever indicating an interest beforehand.

“It has nothing to do with individual personalities because we all like and respect Frank,” Blumenauer wrote. “It is a question of equity, fairness and opportunity for the Caucus.”

Pallone declined to comment about the petition, but in a letter to the Caucus said he claimed the position based on seniority. And, he said, since Kind was already ranking member on the Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources, “it made no sense for me to give up an opportunity where I can be of great service.”

“I understand that some of my colleagues may feel that a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee should not serve on a second committee, or alternatively, in a position of leadership on a second committee,” he wrote. “However, the Caucus decided this issue in a vote earlier this month and I do not think it makes sense for the Democratic Caucus to revisit it.”

But at least one Democratic Member supporting the petition wants the Caucus to do just that, and reconsider the Snyder proposal. Since no roll call tally was taken when that amendment was defeated, the Member said it is unclear exactly how much support there was.

And while unable to cite numbers, the Member said, “there were a lot of people” who said they had changed their minds about the Snyder proposal after Pallone got the subcommittee ranking job.

“It certainly resurrected the who issue again and put the onus back on the leadership to address it,” said the lawmaker.

Several Democratic aides familiar with the scuffle said Members who earlier supported the Snyder proposal are miffed that Pallone would pull such a move just an hour after the Caucus voted on the rules change.

“It was totally unexpected,” said one Democratic staffer. “The irony of it is it came this close to the Caucus meeting in which everybody agreed the leader was doing a good job trying to break the hold of the more senior Members and that’s why the Snyder amendment wasn’t taken up.”

“It isn’t about that specific subcommittee,” said another Democratic aide. “It’s about the process, which is supposed to be about fairness and sharing the wealth.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said Blumenauer has approached him about the proposal, but has yet to receive a formal request. If the signatures are collected and the petition presented, he would entertain addressing the issue in the Caucus.

But Menendez said regardless of how quickly Blumenauer moves, the committee fairness issue will not be addressed at Wednesday’s weekly Caucus meeting. That meeting has a full agenda, he said.

“I can always call a special caucus,” Menendez said. “We’ll play it by ear should it ever come about.”