Pelosi Seeks Rules Change

Posted March 19, 2004 at 5:13pm

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is pushing a significant change to Democratic Caucus rules in an effort to persuade Members on top committees to think twice before they vote against the party.

The Caucus will vote Wednesday on the proposal, which would give the Steering and Policy Committee new power to approve who sits as the subcommittee chairmen or ranking members on the three “exclusive” House panels. Currently, the Members of the full committees decide with a final nod from the Caucus.

Democratic aides said the change is designed to discourage Members on the Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees from voting against the Caucus out of fear they could get passed over for subcommittee leadership.

They said the move, which has been kept largely under wraps until now, came about following November’s narrow Medicare vote, in which a handful of key Democratic lawmakers betrayed the Caucus. Rather than punish those Members by stripping them of their committees, Pelosi opted to try to change the rules to deter party dissension in the future.

“If we need someone on a key vote, we want to make sure we have some leverage,” a senior leadership aide explained. “We want them to do the right thing.”

“This isn’t aimed at any particular person,” the staffer insisted.

Democratic leadership aides predicted the rules change would pass, perhaps even on a voice vote. But, they added, some lawmakers may oppose it, especially those in swing districts who would be most likely to vote against the party when a tough vote comes around.

“This is setting up a dynamic where it could be really harmful to marginal Members,” said a well-placed Democratic aide. “The very people who likely have to vote against Caucus interests are those who are the most marginal and threatened Members who have to do it to get themselves re-elected.”

But another Democratic aide said the change would be particularly helpful if and when Democrats win the majority.

“You think it’s tough to hold folks together now,” the staffer said in defense of the proposal. “I can’t imagine there will be a lot of room between the parties after this election, and it will be just as tough for us to keep our guys together.”

Rep. Benjamin Cardin (Md.), chairman of the party’s Orientation, Study and Review Committee that already approved the change, said the proposal isn’t about anything more than increasing order and accountability in the subcommittee leadership process. The Steering panel, which decides most committee assignments, works to ensure fairness and diversity and should have a say, he said.

“Most people look at this as the proper role for what Steering should be doing,” said Cardin, who will offer the proposal to the Caucus.

“We won’t have a major change in the way we do business.”

But the move is ruffling the feathers of some Members who believe the Minority Leader is trying to consolidate power and tighten her grip on her Caucus. Some also question why Pelosi is pushing the change and hope the Caucus will put off a vote on it until more Members have a chance to look it over.

Rep. Cal Dooley (Calif.), a retiring Member who said the proposal came as a surprise, said he’s concerned the Steering Committee members — many of whom are tapped by Pelosi — will now hold too much sway over subcommittee leadership. He also worried special-interest groups could take advantage of the new setup by gaining an open door to lobby the leader or Steering on whom to appoint as subcommittee leaders.

“There is a great deal of apprehension about making this type of change,” Dooley said. “Myself, and a lot of my colleagues, are really asking what’s broken and why do we think there needs to be a change.

“My concern is that this is a further concentration of power in the hands of a very small number of people in the Democratic Caucus,” he continued. “I’m one who believes very strongly that the institution of Congress, as well as the Democratic Party and Democratic Caucus, benefit by Members engaging in independent thinking.”

Currently, those Democrats sitting on Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means panels recommend to the Caucus who leads the party on those panels’ subcommittees. The rules change would still allow those committees to make subcommittee recommendations, but such assignments would then be vetted by the Steering and Policy Committee and then the full Caucus.

The controversial Medicare vote, which passed 220-215 and spanned a record three hours, left bitter feelings among Democrats in its wake. Members of the minority party were furious at the GOP for attempting to steal one of their core domestic issues and even angrier that some of their own Members sided with the Republicans at vote time.

Prior to the vote, Pelosi warned the Caucus that there would “be no passes” for any Democrat who bolted the party and made clear she would remember which lever Members pulled. In the end, 16 Democrats — mostly moderates — backed the Republican-crafted measure.

Another Democratic staffer said the rules change is Pelosi’s middle-ground response to the vote and an attempt to keep the Caucus in lockstep next time. The aide described the Minority Leader’s approach as: “We’re not going to kick people off committees, but if you are on an exclusive committee, we are not going to forget.”

But Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said there is no hidden agenda. Rather, he said, “The leader felt that with this change, subcommittee chairmen and ranking members will have the backing of a broad cross-section of the Caucus in the Steering Committee and then later by the entire Caucus.”

Seats on the three committees addressed in the proposal are the most highly sought after in the House and often take years to obtain. Some of the most senior Democrats sit on the panels, as well as several conservative-to-moderate Members in swing districts.

An aide to a well-placed conservative Blue Dog Democrat, whose coalition could be hurt by the effort, said the group isn’t mounting any opposition to the proposal. But the staffer said the group generally has “a concern about anything that’s used as punishment.”

“That’s not the way we think we should operate as a party,” the aide said. “These guys know what it takes to win in their very, very tough districts. They have to be able to [vote against the party] if it’s necessary.”