Just the Facts

Chairing a Congressional Committee is No Fun Anymore

By No Labels
March 28, 2018 | Blog

By the end of this year, at least nine House Republican committee chairs will have left Congress. One left to become a Fox News personality. Another is running for governor. Many reached the limit of their term as chair. One, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has a few years left but he is leaving anyway.

That last one should give everyone pause. Politico called it a move that “once would have been an unthinkable surrender of congressional power,” adding that, “being a committee chair has lost a lot of its allure.”

Committee chairs were once titans in Congress, writing bills, conducting oversight, doling out earmarked money and playing a large role in steering the legislative process. Today, chairs no longer control that process or its outcome and oversight is often reduced to hearings to score political points.

Congress is legislating less, and eight out of 10 Americans disapprove of the job that lawmakers are doing, according to a poll this month. As Republican Rep. Mike Simpson told Politico, “Times aren’t like they used to be … the committee chairmen aren’t what they used to be.”

‘No real deal-making authority’

Since the 1990s, legislative power has flowed away from the committees and toward the speaker and his or her leadership team. They control which bills come to the floor and what those bills will contain. The committees still do plenty of work. But they are no longer the power centers they once were.

As Politico reported, “Committee chairs are influential and they get on TV. But they have no real deal-making authority, especially on high-profile legislation.” Politico describes an organization in which top House leadership gets involved in even minor policy arguments, reporting that “every decision is evaluated in the never-ending struggle by party leaders to one-up the other side. Often bills are more about messaging and tribal warfare between the parties than addressing the country’s needs.”

The climate has made committee service at the highest levels less desirable. Adding to that is the idea that chairs are no longer selected according to seniority. Rather, they are chosen by top leadership in the majority party. A 2016 report by R Street, a policy institute that supports limited government, describes the impact on lawmakers:

“The former power of committees created incentives to concentrate on one’s committee work and hope for advancement to senior committee roles,” the report said. “With seniority now merely one of many qualifications, and chairmanships left to the party leadership’s discretion, representatives must remain loyal to party leadership if they are to advance or accomplish their goals. Thus, parties, and their inherent focus on politics, have replaced the House’s former focus on policy making.”

New House, New Rules

Of course, lawmakers have the power to change all of this. By making changes to the rules that govern the House they could change the legislative system to one that is more participatory, bipartisan and effective.

For example, the House could abandon the Hastert Rule, an informal governing practice of speakers that requires a majority of the majority party to support a bill in order for leadership to bring it to the floor. It could return to the “regular order” that mandates use of the committee process. Another change could be a rule requiring that any bill reaching a certain threshold of support on a full committee—say, 70 percent—must be brought to the House floor for a vote.

Taking change a step farther, lawmakers could re-engineer how the speaker is selected. Right now, a simple majority of House members (218 of 435) is required to elect the speaker at the beginning of each Congress. If the rules were changed to require 60 percent (261 of 435), this would have a profound impact. A 60-percent speaker would need support from members of both parties to operate. The makeup of committees, how those committees work and which bills make it to the floor could all undergo radical change.

No matter which party controls Congress after November’s election, a new House will take the oath of office in January. Those lawmakers should insist on new rules to get the job done.

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