Democrats on ‘Exclusives’ Face Review

Posted January 21, 2005 at 6:03pm

In the latest attempt to ensure party loyalty in the ranks of House Democrats, Members holding posts on the four most powerful committees will have their performances reviewed and, in some cases, be asked to justify their place on those exclusive panels.

The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee meets Tuesday afternoon to individually review those currently sitting on the Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, and Ways and Means panels. Senior Democratic sources said the Steering Committee — following its new practice of more closely overseeing Member assignments — will review party dues giving and votes on key issues when deciding whether to renew lawmakers’ assignments to those key panels.

The Steering Committee, made up of Democratic leaders and many senior Members, may even call some lawmakers into the private session to assess their performance. Sources said the most likely to receive such a call is Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), a leading Blue Dog Democrat and Appropriations member who infuriated many of the Democratic faithful late last year when he offered support for a GOP Social Security reform measure.

Other lawmakers who also may receive close scrutiny include moderate Blue Dog Rep. Bud Cramer (Ala.), who often crosses the aisle on key votes, and those Members who have fallen short of their dues requirements such as Reps. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), William Jefferson (La.), Jim Moran (Va.) and Albert Wynn (Md.), Democratic leadership sources said.

“It’s important to participate on all committees, but particularly on exclusive committees,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “Members need to be team players. That means supporting us on our core values and paying dues.”

Several aides said the Steering Committee is particularly upset with Boyd, saying the Florida Democrat betrayed the party on one of the most important issues facing Congress — Social Security. Democrats are preparing for a major issues war with the GOP this Congress on the topic, and worry the Republicans will try to win over some of their own in trying to privatize part of the federal entitlement program.

“In the minority, we’ve got to be a team,” the leadership aide stressed.

But critics of the Steering review defended the Democratic lawmakers on the hot seat, arguing the Steering Committee is overstepping its bounds in the name of party loyalty.

They argued Members sometimes need to break with the party on key issues and cannot always pay all of their dues while trying to finance their own re-elections. Some also questioned whether — if the goal is to raise money to win back the House — Steering is justified in just going over exclusive committee members and not taking a broader look at why Democrats continue to lose at election time.

“They are being very selective in trying to win,” said one Democratic Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I understand we have to raise money, but [it doesn’t make sense] until we review why we’re losing and why people who are losing are called back as pollsters and consultants.”

An aide to a well-placed moderate Democrat added that Steering “is going down a bad track” by going after some centrist Members. This staffer said that in particular both Boyd and Cramer “go beyond the call of duty” to elect fellow centrists, raise money for the party and prove their allegiance.

“Their Democratic credentials should be above reproach,” the aide said. “Sooner or later our leaders are going to have to understand what moderate Members need to do to win elections. If they don’t, they can be assured that Democrats will be the minority party for years to come.”

Earlier this month, the Democratic loyalty test came to a head when Steering interviewed each ranking member on the exclusive and regular committees. Most notably, the committee blasted Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.) for failing to participate adequately, and in so doing, forced him to lobby mightily to ascend to the ranking job on Agriculture.

Peterson ultimately won the slot, despite a firestorm of criticism over the fact that he has paid party dues only twice in his Congressional tenure, rarely participates in party activities and often has bolted the party on key votes.

“The long and short of it is that it is in response to the Steering Committee doing what it said it would like to do [this Congress] — that is to review these folks,” said an aide to a Steering Committee member. “These positions are granted by Steering, and it’s not a pro forma process like it might have been in years past.”

Steering first reviews the committee assignments, and then makes recommendations to the full Caucus. In addition to deciding whether to renew existing exclusive committee seats, the Steering panel also plans Tuesday to complete reappointments to nonexclusive committees and assign second committees to freshman Members.

Another aide to a Steering member said Pelosi and other leaders just want to make clear that “everybody has to pull his or her own weight.”

Sources said it is unclear whether Steering would actually deny a Member’s reappointment. Rather, they said the exercise is about reminding lawmakers about their obligations and making clear they cannot take those responsibilities for granted.

“We realize we have got to be operating on all cylinders if we are going to take back the House,” one staffer said.

This week’s Steering Committee meeting comes amid a major crackdown by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other senior Members to keep the party unified as it eyes the majority. Democrats appear to be taking a cue from majority Republicans, who have traditionally made their Members fight for key slots and recently plucked senior GOP lawmakers from prominent positions for failing to toe the party line.