Here’s How New House Members Can Show Their Clout

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s good news that first-timer House Democrats are pressuring Speaker Nancy Pelosi to increase their influence in the 116th Congress. That’s a very sensible use of their outsize numbers: More than a quarter of the Democrats in the House will be brand new, and it’s appropriate that they want to do more than just rubber-stamp whatever the leadership wants. 

Unfortunately, their mostly reasonable demands don’t include the one that would really shake things up in their favor: stronger House subcommittees.

In the middle of the 20th century, committee chairs ruled the House. They attained their positions by a strict seniority system, and could do pretty much as they pleased, even if it wasn’t what their party wanted. If the longest-serving Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee happened to be very conservative, the panel could ignore liberal ideas, even when a Democratic president was pushing for them.

As Democrats in the House became more liberal after 1958, they began to break the power of committee chairs. At first, and most importantly, that took the form of strengthening the party leadership, producing far more powerful speakers from Tip O’Neill (1977-1986) on. But the final reform push also included the 1973 “Subcommittee Bill of Rights” and further reforms after the 1974 election to empower subcommittees as real legislating and oversight units. In the last 20 years of uninterrupted Democratic majorities in the House, members with relatively little seniority could specialize and achieve real influence by chairing a subcommittee. They had quite a bit of autonomy about what that panel would do, as well as staff support to get things done.

In other words, House reform weakened committee chairs by pushing power up (to the party leadership) and down, to rank-and-file members who chaired subcommittees. 

The “down” part eroded rapidly when Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995 and Republicans increasingly centralized influence in that office, while at the same time gutting the capacity of the committees (and subcommittees) by cutting funding for staff and support organizations. That basic design has survived through four different Republican speakers and four years (2007-2010) of Democratic majorities. What it does is exactly what this year’s new members are worried will happen: They will have little ability to legislate for themselves (and their constituents) outside of approving whatever the party leadership wants. 

Given that structure, it’s sensible for new members to ask for regular meetings with the speaker, as well as positions on the committee-assigning Steering and Policy Committee, and seats on the most important panels. But the truth is that none of that is going to fundamentally change the way the House works. Instead of pushing for more influence within the existing structure, new members should seek to overturn what Gingrich did.  

Reviving meaningful subcommittees might begin by simply having more of them. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were typically about 190 total committees and subcommittees, compared with only 122 in the current, 115th Congress. But it also means more professional staff, and more resources for support organizations. And it means giving them more freedom to do what the chair (and the other subcommittee members) want to do, even if it isn’t a high priority for the party.

To a small extent, empowering subcommittees could give new members immediate influence; it’s easier to be heard on relatively small panels than on larger ones. Even if, for example, Pelosi gives new members the two seats they’re asking for on Financial Services, they would be just be two of the more than 50 members on that panel. But each incoming member will probably be on a relatively small subcommittee, and that could produce the opportunity for real accomplishments. 

A bigger deal would be if increasing the clout of subcommittee gave the new members an achievable goal that’s not too far away. As it is, without other reforms, a little more than half of the Democratic caucus will chair either a full committee or a subcommittee, meaning that the new members would already be in line to move up to that responsibility if they can just hang on (and if Democrats can keep their majority) for two or three terms. And that’s especially good for an incoming class that’s fairly diverse, because it promises them the ability to have personal influence on legislation and oversight, which they could use as they see fit. Of course, subcommittee vitality would still be limited, at least when it came to legislation, by what can get through the full committee; what the party wants to push to the House floor; and what can command a majority in the full House. But it would be a lot better than just winning the ability to harangue the speaker on a regular basis.

The losers from strengthened subcommittees would presumably be the committee chairs, who want to keep the high-profile hearings (for example) to themselves. But they could still do plenty of that. More autonomous subcommittees would also make it harder for the party leadership to coordinate everything going on in the House, especially control of messaging. Pelosi, however, has plenty of tools to ensure that the main party agenda gets done (at least within the House). And centralized messaging from the House majority is overrated, anyway. So what if the party’s talking points get trampled occasionally by a sensationalized subcommittee hearing or by the mark-up of a controversial (but ultimately go-nowhere) bill? It’s a small price to pay for a more energized chamber overall, and it might buy the party some victories it is letting go these days because rank-and-file members are content being sheep instead of coming up with and acting on their own ideas. 

Not least, a more active House membership would also be good for the nation because it would allow the diversity of the members and their constituents to be an activity, not just good pictures.

C’mon, new House Democrats: If you’re going to fight, fight for something really worth winning. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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