The Changing Role of the Committee

By Jones, Gordon S. | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Changing Role of the Committee


Jones, Gordon S., The World and I


In an ever-more partisan Congress, committees will become increasingly irrelevant in the legislative process.

A congressman elected in 1974 was asked by his local newspaper what committees he wanted to serve on in Washington. He replied that he had seen committees in action before, and they never got anything done, so he wouldn't serve on any. At the time, his view was a mark of naivete, but if he were to make the same remark today, he would be much closer to the truth.

Historically critical to the legislative process, the role of standing committees as part of the operations of the modern Congress is changing. The changes are not abrupt and are incomplete, but they are part of an identifiable trend. Committees are likely to remain important, but they will become increasingly irrelevant from the standpoint of legislation.

In the recent history of Congress, one can identify a number of factors that lead to this conclusion.

First, there is the fact that the trend toward legislative irrelevancy has been under way for 20 years or more. While the number of committees (and subcommittees) is up, overall attendance is down, and committees undertake more and more tasks that do not result in legislation.

Second, committee chairmen in the House are now term limited. Under a rule change adopted by the Republican majority at the beginning of the 104th Congress, no committee chairman can serve longer than three terms.

Chairmen in office at the beginning of the 104th Congress, in 1995, will have to step down at the beginning of the 107th Congress, in January 2001, assuming Republicans keep control. Should the Democrats regain control of Congress in the fall of 1998, or in 2000, they might possibly reverse this rules change, but there would be serious political costs to doing so.

Chairmanships are still desirable

And yet, the chairmanship of committees remains very desirable. We can tell just how desirable by how upset current chairmen are about this limitation. Some (such as Gerald Solomon of New York, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee) have announced their intention not to run again. Some are talking about exercising their seniority on other committees of which they are members, becoming chairmen of a different committee.

There is also a move afoot to abandon the rule, or at least to modify it so that chairmanship terms would expire on a rolling basis, one-third in each Congress. There would be heavy political costs involved in abandoning the rule and a lot of resistance to the committee-switching ploy. The rolling expirations makes some sense, but there are practical difficulties with implementation.

Which committees would go first? That could be determined by lot, but what happens when a chairmanship is set to expire in 2000, and the chairman loses the election of 19987 Does his successor serve only one term, or does he get three, which would upset the one-third, one-third, one-third progression.

The explanation for the desirability of chairmanships is obvious: Committee chairmen dispose of substantial resources in the form of positions and money. These assets in turn give a member great opportunities for news coverage, coalition building, and political advancement. They might even allow him to legislate, though that point is secondary.

With the House closely divided between the two major parties, legislation written in committee is often dead on arrival on the floor. Committees report bills and then are tasked by the leadership with building a coalition that can pass them.

Often, the leadership takes an active role in modifying the committee bill, or even in crafting a bill from scratch. The leadership is often more attuned to the nuances of what the House or Senate will accept than is a committee chairman, who may have cultivated a compliant committee membership, at least on his side of the aisle, a compliance that does not prevail in the body as a whole. …

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