Live from Capitol Hill It's.Picking Committees in the Blow-Dried Age

By Hess, Stephen | The Washington Monthly, June 1986 | Go to article overview

Live from Capitol Hill It's.Picking Committees in the Blow-Dried Age


Hess, Stephen, The Washington Monthly


LIVE FROM CAPITAL HILL IT'S . . .

When most of us think about why a senator chooses to serve on one committee or another, a variety of motives come to mind. Perhaps the senator wants to pursue a subject that has always interested him. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic senator from New York, who examined the problem of poverty as a Harvard professor, now sits on the subcommittee on Social Security and Income Maintenance Programs. Or perhaps a senator wants to be sure his state has a voice in a certain area that is vital to its economy. Thus Jesse Helms, the Republican from North Carolina, chose in 1985 to retain the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee to better defend his state's tobacco farmers rather than become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Other committee assignments guarantee the respect of campaign-contributing PACS.

But there is another important reason why senators choose the committees they do: where you sit determines how often you will be photographed. Getting on the right committees is crucial to any senator who wants to get the attention of the Washington press corps--especially the television networks.

When a committee makes news, its members make news. Consider an article by Rick Atkinson and Walter Pincus that appeared on the front page of the The Washington Post on May 4, 1984, under the headline, "Pentagon Lists Budget Cuts':

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger made no effort to hide his regret at the cuts, and when Senator J. James Exon asked where further cuts could be made . . ..

But Senator Carl Levin told Weinberger, "You come up here saying every year that if we cut one dollar . . ..'

Senator Sam Nunn, a Senate leader on defense matters, pulled him up short on that issue . . ..

Senator John W. Warner, a former Navy secretary, questioned the cut of an attack submarine . . ..

This hearing was also covered by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and C-SPAN.

An inspection of the worksheets kept by the Senate radio and television gallery shows that between February 1979 and June 1984 the best committee for the media hound to be on was Foreign Relations, covered by 522 network cameras. Foreign Relations has traditionally been the prime Senate incubator of presidential aspirants; since 1953, its members have included Robert A. Taft, William Knowland, Hubert Humphrey, Frank Church, Stuart Symington, Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, Howard Baker, John Glenn, Alan Cranston, and John F. Kennedy. Some of its power has ebbed--if only because we've kept out of a full-fledged war during the past decade--but Foreign Relations still remains the locus of congressional activity in the area that Washington journalism finds most newsworthy.

The next best place for a senator to get noticed is Judiciary (252 cameras). In recent years, Judiciary repeatedly has made news because of its jurisdiction over civil rights bills, anti-crime legislation (including such questions as the death penalty and the insanity defense), proposed constitutional amendments (the equal rights amendment, school prayer, abortion), and immigration reform.

The fastest rising seat of influence in terms of media attention--with 156 cameras, now in third place--is the Budget Committee. Its importance has grown along with the federal deficit. I should note, too, that these figures understate its present poularity, Created in 1974, the Budget Committee was barely noticed by cameras until Ronald Reagan and David Stockman launched their budget-cutting crusade in 1981. It is followed by a perennial favorite of the press corps, the Governmental Affairs Committee (152 cameras), once known as Government Operations, which has broad authority to investigate (but not legislate) and is therefore especially involved in finding waste and malfeasance in the president's agencies. …

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Live from Capitol Hill It's.Picking Committees in the Blow-Dried Age
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