On-the-Job Training: New Hill Overseers Learn as They Go

Posted April 1, 2003 at 5:02pm

It’s often referred to as a thankless job: serving as chairman or ranking member of a committee overseeing Congress’ own operations. The constituents consist of Members and staff, who provide little in the way of votes back home, and it’s hardly a draw on the fundraising circuit.

But the relatively small constituency and scarce perks belie the steep learning curve the Members who take these authorizing and appropriating posts initially face. After three months on the job, Members new to the roles this Congress are still mastering the vast array of legislative branch agencies and issues over which they have purview.

Take Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), now chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. He has spent nearly two decades in Congress (including three terms in the House), yet many of the issues his subcommittee controls are esoteric enough that by his own admission he’s “winging it.” (Campbell also has had less time than his colleagues to catch up, as he was just named chairman this month.)

The others — including Campbell’s counterpart across the Capitol, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), and House Administration ranking member John Larson (D-Conn.) — have also acknowledged to one degree or another just how much they have to learn.

The sentiment excepts, of course, Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was given the post after he resigned as Majority Leader in December. Well-versed in Senate procedures and intimately familiar with its operations, Lott has gotten off to a stellar start. He has already held one oversight hearing and scheduled two more, and still another is planned jointly with the House Administration Committee to discuss security.

Lott’s descent into his new role is obviously atypical, but it underscores perhaps the strongest upside for Members holding these jobs — their proximity to and potential platform for leadership.

For example, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) served as Rules chairman prior to becoming Majority Whip. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has alternately served as chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch and now also has Assistant Minority Floor Leader responsibilities. And Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) previously held the gavel at House Administration.

Kingston already holds a leadership position as Republican Conference vice chairman and Assistant Majority Whip. But this is his first stint on the legislative branch subcommittee.

In an interview last week, Kingston said his priorities included increasing accountability and efficiency in Congress and its support agencies.

“There is a prejudice against asking questions here. It is a go-along, get-along atmosphere,” he said. “[House Administration Chairman] Bob Ney [R-Ohio] can call me and raise hell any time he wants and I can tell him to go to hell anytime I want,” he added, stating that such give-and-take leads to effective oversight.

Kingston said one of his favorite parts of Capitol Hill is the Library of Congress, which he said is underutilized by Members who find themselves too busy to walk across First Street to pore over its vast collections. “I want to find a way to bridge that gap. I think it would make the institution a better place.”

Kingston prides himself on giving a portion of his Members’ Representational Allowance back to the Treasury every year. But he said staffers shouldn’t worry that his office’s policy would affect their salaries.

“I do think all 435 Members have to use their own discretion. I don’t think the legislative branch [sub]committee should make that decision for any Member of Congress,” he said, adding that he would like to look into making MRAs proportional to district size.

He also expressed deep concern with Congress’ continual loss of talent to private industry, in large part because of the substantial salary discrepancy.

“One of the things we need to do is make it so staffs can have a long-term professional opportunity without seeing Congress as a training ground. I’d love to see our staff have the opportunity to make more money” in the form of discretionary bonuses, he said. “How are you going to keep good people if you don’t do that?”

Larson echoed Kingston’s sentiment. “We train them, and then they go over to the Senate,” he said in an interview, citing the House’s historical lag behind Senate salaries.

The third-term Connecticut Democrat served on a similar committee in the state Senate. Although he has never before served on House Administration, Larson professes a profound respect for the institution — the first bill he introduced as a freshman lawmaker was to direct the Librarian of Congress to prepare a history of the House — and brings to his new post a host of ideas about how to make the chamber function better.

“I think it’s so important that you keep a record of this stuff for future generations,” the former high school history teacher said.

As part of an effort to preserve the House institutional memory, Larson wants to see the old House chamber restored.

“The reason again is one of reverence and history. During [President Bill Clinton’s] impeachment, the Senate retreated to its old chamber. I think that means a lot. I don’t think Abraham Lincoln should be relegated to a brass plaque in what is now referred to as Statuary Hall, he said, referring to the marker where Lincoln’s desk used to be.

“Without getting overdramatic, my point here is I think it provides Members with a historical perspective on what their role is as part of a continuation of a democratic experiment.”

But Larson’s passion for the House’s past doesn’t detract from his focus on making sure the chamber is equipped with up-to-date technology — a priority, he says, because it elevates Members’ abilities to serve their constituents.

As for continuing the almost-fabled good relationship between the panel’s chairman and ranking member — as was the case with his predecessor, now-Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — Larson said: “I have to say, I think Ney’s a Member’s Member. I applaud him. In general, I think he cares deeply about the institution.”

And for someone who considers himself an institutionalist, that’s pretty high praise.

“I don’t know how anyone can come here among all the marble, alabaster [and] great monuments and not be in awe,” he said.

Even though he’s been in Congress almost five times as long as Larson, Campbell still harbors many of those same feelings.

“When I walk through the halls I watch the ceiling and I look at the walls because it’s a museum in and of itself,” he said. “There’s so much history wrapped up in this complex that I continually think every American ought to see it and the preservation of it and all things that go with keeping it in top shape and secure.”

It’s on the latter that Campbell said his tenure as chairman will place a strong emphasis.

“I guess because I was a cop years ago, it’s going to be one of my priorities this time because I think it’s directly related to the security of the Capitol,” he said of the Capitol Police.

“What I would like to do is make sure the resources are there to improve their training and the training environment too and to make sure they have the latest in technology and equipment. I want to make them the pride of the Capitol, the Capitol Police.”