Turf Wars: How Congressional Committees Claim Jurisdiction

Turf Wars: How Congressional Committees Claim Jurisdiction

Turf Wars: How Congressional Committees Claim Jurisdiction

Turf Wars: How Congressional Committees Claim Jurisdiction

Synopsis

For most bills in American legislatures, the issue of turf—or which committee has jurisdiction over a bill—can make all the difference. Turf governs the flow and fate of all legislation. In this innovative study, David C. King explains how jurisdictional areas for committees are created and changed in Congress. Political scientists have long maintained that jurisdictions are relatively static, changing only at times of dramatic reforms. Not so, says King. Combining quantitative evidence with interviews and case studies, he shows how on-going turf wars make jurisdictions fluid. According to King, jurisdictional change stems both from legislators seeking electoral advantage and from nonpartisan House parliamentarians referring ambiguous bills to committees with the expertise to handle the issues. King brilliantly dissects the politics of turf grabbing and at the same time shows how parliamentarians have become institutional guardians of the legislative process. Original and insightful, Turf Wars will be valuable to those interested in congressional studies and American politics more generally.

Excerpt

When William Brown stepped down as the House of Representative's head parliamentarian in September 1994, he was only the second person to hold that post since 1928. Over 67 years, 13 Speakers, and several changes in party control, the House employed just two chief parliamentarians. On the Senate side, generations of stability in the parliamentarian's office were disrupted in the early 1980s because some rulings were seen favoring one party over the other. It was a lesson not lost on anyone, especially in the House. A parliamentarian's legitimacy comes from placing the interests of the Congress above the interests of a party.

The parliamentarians have figured prominently in previous chapters because they have been imbued with something akin to guardianship over rules and precedents. This chapter focuses more directly on the causes and consequences of this guardianship. Why, for example, would legislatures delegate some politically important decisions to unelected clerks? As we have seen, policy entrepreneurs try shaping jurisdictions to advance their interests. Constituent demands, ideologies, and personal backgrounds motivate them, but the interests motivating parliamentarians are fundamentally different. Although the parliamentarians do not use this language, they act as if they are constrained not by the Speaker or the majority party but by the sense of the House's median voter. Parliamentarians have acquired rights whose exercise minimizes the damage policy entrepreneurs would otherwise inflict on the committee system. Further, jurisdictional contests tend to be decided in ways that enhance the informational efficiency of the committee system.

An idealized committee system is a collective good; everyone benefits from the division of labor, expertise, and deference that comprise . . .

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