Crackup of the Committees
Richard E. Cohen
The National Journal, Vol. 31, No. 31 Pg. 2210, July 31, 1999
From the scant handful of major bills passed by the House and the Senate this year, one unmistakable fact emerges: The congressional committees have lost their long-standing pre-eminence as the center of legislative ideas and debates.
During May and June, for example, both the House and the Senate considered major gun control proposals that were not written or reviewed by either chamber's Judiciary Committee. Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., after bowing to Democratic demands for action on patients' rights, took the unusual step of selecting as the focus of the floor debate a bill crafted by key Democrats. Republicans offered an alternative measure that was initially prepared by a Senate GOP task force and was modified only slightly by the committee with jurisdiction. Meanwhile, key House committees are so splintered over their managed care legislation that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., this week devided a plan to bypass them altogether.
Also in recent
days, both chambers have taken up major tax cuts that were cleared by the
tax-writing committees, but were not really the handiwork of a majority of
their members. The chairmen of the
Publicly and privately, ''there was virtually no discussion of the (tax) bill with members,'' complained moderate Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who forced last-minute changes in the House proposal. ''Everything has been fed to everybody.''
This ad hoc
legislating flouts the textbook model for how Congress makes laws. As generations of high school students have
learned in civics courses, legislation is supposed to result when thorough
hearings are followed by a committee review of alternatives in an attempt to
build consensus, and then by a second and third round of those same debates
on the House and Senate floors. Such a
framework was described more than a century ago by a respected political scientist
who initially framed his ideas as a
''Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work,'' wrote Woodrow Wilson in his classic 1885 study, Congressional Government. ''Whatever is to be done must be done by, or through, the committee.''
For most of
the 20th century,
Over the past 30 years, however, committee power has eroded to the point where it now has largely collapsed. In many respects, this process has been both gradual and purposeful. It began during the era of Democratic control and has been greatly accelerated by both parties during the past decade. The death warrant for the old system came in 1995, when Newt Gingrich, R- Ga., assumed power as House Speaker. As part of his top-down management style, Gingrich circumvented and intentionally undermined the committee process by creating Republican task forces and demanding that they write legislation reflecting his own views.
With Gingrich gone, this legislative year began with promises that a more mature and steady Republican majority would pay greater homage to committee perquisites. Upon taking over as House Speaker in January, Hastert embraced a return to the ''regular order.'' More comfortable than Gingrich with the committee system, Hastert promised to give the panels free, or at least freer, rein to achieve his general goals.
To be sure, some of the same chairmen who meekly ducked decisions under Gingrich have sought to impose their own marks on legislation in Hastert's House. ''There is a stronger sense that our members are charting their own course,'' said a veteran House GOP aide. But Hastert often has found that implementing his lofty goal of a return to legislating-as-usual hasn't worked out smoothly.
In the Senate, Lott, now in his fourth year as Majority Leader, seems more settled in his post and less inclined to create party task forces to guide the work of committee chairmen. Nevertheless, Senate committees, like their counterparts in the House, routinely find that they, too, suffer because of their own ineffectiveness or lack of deliberation--or simply are ignored by party leaders. In both chambers, this has been the case in recent months with the gun control, tax cut, and patients' rights legislation. A similar scenario is likely to develop this fall on campaign finance reform.
their part, have been eager to criticize the Republicans for their continued
efforts to detour around the conventional committee process. ''It's an everyday occurrence now for committees
to lose control,'' said Rep. Martin
Even GOP allies see little prospect for resolving the problem. Committees ''will become increasingly irrelevant from the standpoint of legislation,'' veteran conservative activist Gordon S. Jones wrote last September in The World & I, a magazine published by The Washington Times.
That judgment may sound radical, but it is really only what has been obvious for some time. Despite occasional bursts of nostalgia from chairmen seeking to reclaim what they view as their due prerogatives, the arrangements that Woodrow Wilson described are as dated as quill pens and snuffboxes. And as the century ends, the breakdown of the committee system has become a major factor in the chaos that pervades Capitol Hill. Congressional leaders repeatedly have encountered difficulties with party-driven legislation that was hastily brought to the House or Senate floor without a thorough vetting--or any attempts at bipartisan compromise--among the experts at the committee level.
Republican leaders, said Frost, ''have danced on the edge several times and are flirting with disaster. You can't always cram for the final exam and get A's. Plus, their incompetence emboldens our side to go after them.''
use of the filibuster in the Senate is one indicator that objectionable legislation
is being scheduled more frequently for floor consideration, thus boosting
combativeness. In a paper presented
this month to a Capitol Hill conference on civility in the Senate,
congressional scholar Barbara Sinclair, a political science professor at the
Moreover, the disruptive nature of the current legislative process has left the Republican majority struggling to effectively enunciate a party message. Consultant Steven Hofman, a House Republican leadership aide during the 1980s who became a senior Labor Department official in the Bush Administration, noted that in contrast to the congressional GOP, President Clinton often ''produces a proposal and then goes to the country to talk about it.'' Hofman contended: ''With divided government, narrow majorities, and a cynical public, moving policy forward requires public support. If I were a strategist for Hastert, I'd bring in our committee and subcommittee chairmen to see how we can engage issues with the country and have a dialogue.''
Although there has been little serious discussion of institutional alternatives, the coming years may dictate a search for new models of legislative order--no matter who is elected President and who controls Congress.
Baronies Under Siege
Democrats these days are well-positioned to criticize Republican operations, but they had plenty of their own problems in running the House and Senate committees while they held the majority. And the Democrats were responsible for major changes in the committee system that have had a lingering impact on the GOP-controlled Congress.
For most of the 20th century--following the Republicans' 1911 revolt against their domineering Speaker Joseph G. Cannon, who was called ''czar''--the majority party in the House under both Democratic and GOP control gave the committees broad authority to dictate the agenda. The seeds for the destruction of that system were planted in the 1960s, when the mostly Southern and conservative Democratic committee chairmen in both the House and the Senate resisted large parts of President Kennedy's ''New Frontier'' program.
The views of most of these conservative Democratic chairmen ran counter to those of most of their party colleagues, who wanted to increase the role of the federal government on economic and social issues. But during the early 1960s, Democratic congressional leaders lacked the muscle to break the deadlocks that resulted.
The old-style Democratic committee barons changed course and went along with President Lyndon B. Johnson's ''Great Society'' initiative only when LBJ's huge election victory in 1964 allowed him to define the terms of debate the following year. Perhaps the best example occurred in 1965, when Wilbur D. Mills, D-Ark., the masterful consensus builder who chaired the Ways and Means Committee, abandoned his longtime opposition to government-sponsored medical care for the elderly and took the lead in painstakingly building a bipartisan coalition to enact what became the Medicare program. ''Generally, the committee system accommodated change,'' Hofman said. ''Committees knew where the wind was blowing.''
Even in those days, however, the committee system hardly functioned perfectly. Segregationist Chairman James O. Eastland, D-Miss., and other Southern Democrats who controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee opposed civil rights legislation so ferociously that Democratic leaders were forced to take those bills directly to the Senate floor.
Eventually, President Johnson's popularity waned, and the coalition of Southerners and cautious Northern Democrats who took their cues from the big-city political machines regained control of the House and its committees. They engaged in a titanic struggle with liberal Democratic reformers who demanded a more activist federal government. The struggle continued until after the 1974 election, when the ''Watergate babies'' eliminated the final vestiges of the old system--including the iron-clad seniority rules, closed-door deal-making, and Southern dominance among congressional Democrats. Another key step in 1974 was passage of the Congressional Budget Act, which created an annual budgeting process that supersedes the committees' role.
What followed was the democratization of the Democratic Caucus and of House committees: Subcommittee chairmen gained vast new influence; junior members won seats on the most powerful committees; party leaders--notably Speaker Thomas P. ''Tip'' O'Neill Jr., D-Mass.--became national figures.
With the introduction of C-SPAN coverage of the House in 1978, Hofman said, ''members viewed themselves as much more independent, through the use of modern communications techniques.'' A prime early example was the move in 1982 by two young lawmakers--then-Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.--to craft a massive tax reform plan and sell it to the nation. Slowly, reluctantly, the old-style committee chairmen accommodated themselves to the changes.
During the Reagan years of politically divided government, important legislation was written largely in informal settings outside of the committee process. This was the case with the crafting of Social Security reform in 1983 and the so-called Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction scheme in 1985.
In 1994, the final year of the Democratic majority, the committee system collapsed under the combined weight of its own decrepitude and the Clinton Administration's legislative naivete. The Administration's insistent demand for action on a costly, indigestible plan for national health care coverage triggered the final, whimpering end: Neither House nor Senate committees were able to produce credible legislative proposals.
Transforming the Way Congress Works
When the Republicans took control of Congress in January 1995, armed with their ready-made legislative agenda, the Contract With America, the committees became all but superfluous. The document, signed by nearly all Republican House candidates in 1994, committed a Republican-controlled House to voting on 10 main planks and a variety of sub-topics, ranging from balancing the budget to congressional term limits.
What the committee chairmen may have thought about those goals simply did not matter. Gingrich was viewed by colleagues, and saw himself, as the political revolution's paramount leader. Members of the large and feisty GOP freshman class in each chamber emphasized that they would oppose a return of domineering committee chairmen of the type that had flourished during the era of Democratic control.
the House, Republicans ''rightly sensed that their enemies were not just the
Democrats' policies, but also their prevailing policy-making structures,''
In keeping with the Contract With America's promise to ''transform the way Congress works,'' House Republicans during early 1995 approved significant procedural reforms to weaken the grip of committee chairmen, including a six-year term limit for full-committee and subcommittee chairmen. (In the Senate, a similar six-year rule for committee chairmen, which has received less public attention, took effect in 1997.)
Other significant changes that weakened the power of House chairmen include the elimination of proxy voting in committees and the enhancement of the Speaker's authority to refer legislation to committees. In addition, Republicans cut committee staff positions by one-third in the House and by one- sixth in the Senate. They also eliminated three minor House committees and merged or eliminated several dozen House and Senate subcommittees.
party leadership, and the Speaker in particular, gained substantial power at
the expense of committees and committee chairs,'' wrote Christopher Deering,
During the Gingrich years, Republicans also moved away from the Democratic majority's practice of calling in federal agency officials for oversight hearings to pinpoint bureaucratic failures. Rather than focus on programmatic oversight, Republicans trained their committee guns on investigative oversight to uncover scandal, especially among Clinton Administration officials.
Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on both the Banking and Financial Services and the Judiciary committees who has been a Clinton loyalist during GOP investigations, said that Republicans have spent less time in committees on programmatic oversight because they oppose many of those programs in the first place. ''To blame an Administration for a program not working, you have to believe the program should work,'' Frank said.
According to official records, the Democratic-controlled House committees issued reports on 55 federal programs and related matters in 1991-92, while the comparable total from the GOP majority in 1997-98 was a mere 14. Republicans concede that their cutback in committee staffing has left them with few aides experienced in conducting oversight. Indeed, the House Rules Committee recently has been working with the Congressional Research Service to assist Capitol Hill staffers in learning how to conduct program oversight.
The committees' supervisory role also has been diminished by the Clinton Administration's unusually aggressive efforts to deny or at least limit oversight. At a recent hearing of a House Rules subcommittee chaired by Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., five House GOP chairmen recounted their difficulties in securing information from the Clinton Administration.
''Trying to get the facts out of this Administration is some trick,'' said Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R- Ill., who voiced frustration with White House responses to his impeachment inquiry last fall. Linder said that the panel may seek a House rules change to improve compliance with committee inquiries.
The Bumpy Road to Regular Order
The regimen of the early Gingrich years gradually broke down following the unpopular federal government shutdowns during the winter of 1995-96, the House reprimand of the Speaker for ethics violations in early 1997, and an aborted coup attempt against him in mid-1997. These incidents crippled Gingrich, weakened his command of his leadership team, and gave committees an opportunity to regain legislative primacy.
Yet members still complain of an absence of true debate and thoughtfulness in most committee actions. ''The deliberative process does not happen very often,'' said GOP Rep. Castle.
In recent years, a growing number of members seeking to learn about issues have often found committee hearings so stage- managed as to be useless, and these members have stopped relying on the committees as a source for education and deliberation. In one alternative approach, small groups of members get together and call experts to their offices for private discussions. Likewise, the failure of many committees to promote serious debates on issues has created pressure--especially in the clubbier Senate--for bipartisan closed-door meetings in party leaders' offices.
Moreover, the past two years have seen recurring examples of committee chairmen on both sides of Capitol Hill who have been unprepared for the task and have documented their irrelevance by failing to act. For instance, House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., has become a prime target of criticism from his own party because his committee, despite its broad jurisdiction, has had a very limited output during the past four years.
Bliley has repeatedly failed to move managed care reforms because of disagreements among committee Republicans on the scope of the legislation. With Bliley's panel deadlocked, the action shifted several months ago to the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which had been largely dormant on health care issues. Hastert this week said that he would follow through on his private warning that if Republicans can't settle their differences soon, he will bypass the committees altogether and bring one or more ''patient protection'' bills directly to the House floor.
Critics also point to embarrassing setbacks that Bliley suffered in June, when his panel took up the banking reform bill, on privacy and thrift-regulation issues. ''Bliley is out of his element,'' said one House GOP leadership source. ''John Dingell (the Michigan Democrat who is the panel's ex-chairman) runs circles around him.'' The source, like other detractors, would not speak for attribution about the chairman, whom they regard as thin-skinned.
times, committee chairmen have had problems when their views have run counter
to a majority of their party. For
instance, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Floyd Spence, R-S.C.,
sparked an uproar on July 1, when he made what is usually a routine motion on
the House floor to send the defense authorization bill to a House-Senate
conference committee. In doing so,
Spence backed what appeared to be an innocuous effort by committee Democrats
to ''recognize the achievement of goals'' by
hard-liners seized the opportunity to launch another rhetorical attack on
This incident underscores a larger point: Congress's entire debate on Kosovo this spring occurred largely outside of the committee process, again because of divisions among Republicans on the key panels and weak leadership by their chairmen, who couldn't settle differences. Debate resulted chiefly when GOP leaders called measures directly to the House or Senate floor. Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., took the unusual route of filing proposals under the 1973 War Powers Resolution in what became a futile effort to force the House to take a position.
control, which gained great urgency this spring following the high school massacre
Hyde favored action akin to the Senate-passed measure, but most of the predominantly Southern and Western Republicans on his panel strongly opposed new gun restrictions. The Judiciary Committee lost control of the issue, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, worked with Dingell to produce a weak alternative; then the Rules Committee structured the House debate to permit votes on various alternatives. In the end, the House rejected the Dingell amendment and other gun control provisions, and instead approved several steps designed to address moral decay and to expand juvenile justice programs. Since then, procedural objections have delayed efforts to craft a limited House-Senate compromise.
After the House vote, DeLay proclaimed, ''I think the process moved very well.'' Likewise, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., praised the GOP's handling of the issue and blamed the failure on Democratic partisanship. ''It was a brilliant process,'' Dreier said in an interview. ''It allowed the House to work its will. . . . I would have preferred a different outcome. But we still may get something in a conference committee.''
The most successful House chairman under Republican rule has been Bud Shuster, R-Pa., the head of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who has frequently defied party leaders by pressing for public works spending that far exceeds their budget plans. Shuster generally has prevailed because--unlike other House chairmen--he works assiduously to develop bipartisan consensus on his 75-member committee, and he is willing to challenge current GOP dogma. ''He embarrasses the leadership, but I admire the ways he gets things done,'' said a victim of Shuster's exploits.
Even when House and Senate committees manage to handle their legislation in a relatively routine fashion, they often face setbacks later in the process at the hands of Republican leaders. For instance, in resolving differences between two competing bank reform proposals before House floor debate began, committee chairmen and other senior Republicans dropped controversial amendments--one, from the Banking and Financial Services Committee, to restrict redlining (refusal to do business in poor neighborhoods) by insurance companies; the other, from the Commerce Committee, to strengthen privacy of banking records.
Neither proposal was debated on the House floor, even though each was supported by committee majorities that included Democrats and some Republicans. ''In each case, the Rules Committee dictated the winner,'' charged a Rules Committee Democratic aide.
This spring, the two committees behaved haphazardly when a bipartisan congressional coalition of steel-industry allies demanded action on steps to limit steel imports. Most Ways and Means and Finance members tend to oppose protectionist measures, so Republican leaders, having made commitments for floor votes, circumvented the committees. Ways and Means reported a steel import quota bill to the floor ''adversely,'' but the House approved it anyway. Then the proposal was placed directly on the Senate calendar to avoid the prospect of committee delay; an attempt to force Senate action was stymied on a cloture vote in June.
The two committees' handling of tax cut legislation this summer has been haphazard as well. Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, unveiled his bill to both committee Republicans and Democrats on July 12--the day that Congress returned from its Fourth of July recess and less than 24 hours before the panel began its debate.
legislation is so complex that one word can change the entire meaning,'' said
Rep. Robert T. Matsui of
Although Ways and Means Republicans conceded that they, too, had little time to examine the bill, many said that Archer had kept them informed of his general direction and that the result included no real surprises. ''Most of us had a pretty good idea of what was in it,'' said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. ''You need to approach a tax bill with a lot of discretion for the chairman to make tough choices. Otherwise, it leaks out by dribs and drabs.'' In addition, members--especially those who do not sit on the committee--usually don't focus on the details until the final days before the vote, Portman said. ''A lot of things around here don't get done until crunch time.''
But after Ways and Means approved the tax package on a party-line vote, clusters of GOP moderates and conservatives met and identified an armful of problems with Archer's proposal. The issues ranged from the proposal's failure to completely eliminate the ''marriage penalty'' on certain middle-income couples to excessive benefits for the wealthy by means of a reduction in the capital gains tax rate and the phase-out of the estate tax. Other Republicans complained that the tax cuts did not leave enough money to restore the fiscal soundness of Social Security and Medicare. ''People don't understand this bill,'' Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., complained two days before the House floor debate.
Republican leaders were forced to postpone the floor vote by a day as they worked in a last-minute frenzy to round up their dissidents. To appease GOP moderates, the leaders agreed to condition the 10 percent, across-the-board income tax cut in Archer's bill on a commitment to reduce interest payments on the public debt. In addition, the Rules Committee wrapped highly technical--and perhaps ineffectual--tax-policy changes to Archer's proposal into the separate resolution setting the terms of debate on the overall bill. In the end, on July 22 the House passed the tax bill, 223-208, with all but four Republicans on board.
''The Republicans are operating by the seat of their pants,'' complained Frost, a Rules Committee Democrat. ''Either they can't count, or they are not competent.'' Even a senior House GOP aide complained that the tax bill was ''not deftly handled'' and that Archer had placed party leaders in an awkward position because ''he didn't reach out to many Republicans.''
Like Archer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., unveiled his tax cut proposal after only limited exchanges of views with other panel members--mostly by letter or through staff discussions. ''He didn't have many discussions with Senators,'' said Virginia K. Flynn, Roth's spokeswoman. ''But he's been signaling for months what are his plans.''
Unlike Archer, Roth included provisions that were designed to reach out to Democrats, two of whom voted for the measure in committee on July 21. However, some Finance Committee Republicans complained about Roth's details, even though they voted for his bill. Four of the panel's most conservative Republicans, including Lott, offered an alternative modeled after Archer's proposal, but it was defeated, 13-7. GOP leaders hope to resolve House-Senate differences before the August recess.
The effort to finalize the tax legislation is sure to be a major headache during the remainder of the session. But also still looming is a related conflict that will probably prove the most difficult to resolve --how to pass the 13 appropriations bills to finance federal operations in fiscal 2000. Both problems stem directly from policy assumptions laid out by the House and Senate Budget committees in their budget resolutions earlier this year and approved on the floors in April in nearly party-line votes.
Although House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, held listening sessions to seek the views of other Republicans on his budget resolution, it has become apparent that many members did not fully understand or embrace the consequences of the plan they approved--which included the large tax cut, tight spending caps in keeping with the 1997 balanced-budget agreement, and a ''lockbox'' that Republicans said will direct $1.8 trillion of the budget surplus to the Social Security trust funds during the next 10 years.
don't work out in the long run,'' Rep.
Fred Upton, R-Mich., complained on the eve of the House vote on the
tax bill. When Hastert privately
reminded the tax measure's GOP critics that they had supported the budget,
Now Republican members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees are desperate to avoid a repeat of last year's budget endgame, in which Gingrich took control of decisions. Complaining that their pool of money is inadequate, they say that they will be forced to engage in fiscal sleight of hand to meet the political prerequisites for enacting their budget. Other Republicans, however, bitterly respond that the free-spending Appropriations committees have gone off the party reservation.
In recent weeks, House and Senate Republicans have deferred committee and floor action on various appropriations measures because they feared that they lacked a majority to approve them. ''We're suffering from inadequate internal communications,'' said a House Republican aide who has been actively engaged in the budget debate. ''When no one has a standard understanding (of the spending legislation details), it's hard to grow the vote.''
Floundering to Exert Control
Despite the setbacks that House and Senate committees have encountered this year, congressional Republican leaders contend that, with some exceptions, they have restored legislative power to the committees. The leaders also emphasize their continuing desire for a less active federal government and make clear that they would not sanction a return to the old system of omnipotent chairmen.
Republicans, to be sure, have been handicapped by the nearly hopeless dynamics of the 106th Congress. They currently have only five-seat control in both the House and the Senate, and they must contend with a wounded Democratic President bent on reasserting his political primacy and leaving a legacy of peace and prosperity. Their dual challenge is keeping their diverse forces unified while confronting Democrats--especially in the House--who have become increasingly confident that they will regain control in next year's election. It is easy to see why Republican leaders, when confronted with difficult legislation, might surmise that the only way to exert control in the current climate is to move decisively, without waiting for often-wayward committees to work their will.
For their part, Gephardt and other Democrats have said that they will promote closer party coordination with the committees if they regain the majority. At the start, at least, the Democrats' desire to effectively manipulate the levers of power most likely would override some of their past excesses. But the prospect that most of the Democrats' House chairmen would be strong liberals could soon pose the same kinds of problems that Republicans have had since 1995.
Few in the
House or Senate--or, for that matter, in the news media or academia--give
much thought to the committee system's problems. With most lawmakers spending only three or
four days a week in
committees and leaders increasingly send party-driven legislation to the
floor, opposition forces have mounted a growing number of filibusters. Many of these filibusters have succeeded in
killing the bills, since Senate rules require 60 votes to invoke cloture and
limit further debate. By the 1990s,
according to Barbara Sinclair, a political science professor at the