In GOP Majority, Committees May Face Cuts

Republican Leaders Are Discussing Overhauling Committee Size and Structure if They Win Back House

Posted August 4, 2010 at 6:26pm

House Republican leaders are considering restructuring and possibly shrinking committees if they retake the majority this fall, according to several House GOP sources familiar with the discussions.

One of the first steps of the new Republican majority in 1995 was a restructuring that eliminated three committees.

One House Republican source said most Members may not realize that this idea is on the table, but there is a real possibility that a GOP majority would shrink or eliminate some committees.

The House Republican recess packet distributed to Members last week hinted at possible changes in committee structure.

“Congress should review its internal committee structure to keep up with the ever-growing bureaucracy, ensure there is proper oversight, and eliminate duplicative programs and jurisdictions,” the document says.

A House Republican aide said leadership has discussed reforming committees and that it is a good way for the GOP to show the public the party is committed to truly reforming the institution.

“The system is not working,” the aide said. “When things aren’t going well, it’s time to take a look at what needs to be fixed.”

A second House aide said there is a “general feeling” that some committees have gotten “a little large and unwieldy,” making committee activities such as markups hard to manage.

But, the aide said, leadership could address this problem simply by choosing not to refill slots that are left open as a result of retirements or electoral losses.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Congress has a responsibility to update the committee structure as needed, such as when the Homeland Security Committee was created after the 9/11 attacks to oversee the Department of Homeland Security.

But Steel stressed that there is no commitment yet to include committee restructuring in the Republican agenda.

“The recess packet includes ideas from the American people and Republican Members that may or may not become part of our governing agenda after we discuss them with the American people,” he said. “That having been said, no decisions have been made, and, obviously, no decisions will be made without the input of the entire House Republican Conference.”

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that it is extremely difficult to change the committee structure in part because Members build up power bases inside their committees and are rarely willing to give them up.

Gingrich predicted House Republicans would make “small, useful changes” to the committee structure if they retake the majority. But to implement meaningful reform would take a “fundamental rethinking” of the entire structure, he said.

Under Gingrich’s new Republican majority in 1995, the House eliminated the Post Office and Civil Service, District of Columbia, and Merchant Marine and Fisheries committees and transferred their jurisdictions to other panels.

House Republicans also cut dozens of subcommittees, limited most full panels to five subcommittees and effectively centralized in the Speaker’s office the power once held by chairmen.

The effort was spearheaded by California Rep. David Dreier, who is now the ranking member of the Rules Committee.

Gingrich said a new Republican majority in 2011 would not have the political muscle built up to undertake major reforms such as “changing the rules of engagement in the Appropriations Committee.”

“You almost would have to have a bipartisan task force” to implement broader reforms, he said, but it is unlikely Democrats will be in a bipartisan mood if they lose the House in the fall, he added.

Republicans may not embrace change either. Earlier this year, several House Republicans balked at a proposal offered by House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) to shutter the Policy Committee and return its $300,000 budget to the Treasury to help pay down the debt. McCotter argued that the committee’s purpose had been co-opted by other leadership offices.

Norman Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call contributor, praised Gingrich’s reforms in 1995. And this week he said the idea is still applicable.

“In general, reforming the committee system by taking a hard and fresh look at all the committees and subcommittees, seeing where there is overlap and where the focus is antiquated … and making changes accordingly, is a good idea,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But the key is not the idea of reforming but the plan itself: is it straightforward and sensible, or done for ideological, P.R. or political reasons? That we cannot judge until we see it. If we see it.”