Speaker Adjusts Power-Sharing Relationships

Posted September 18, 2008 at 3:04pm

House Democratic chairmen have spent the past year and a half learning that a gavel isn’t everything.

On debates from children’s health insurance to auto efficiency to the economic stimulus package approved earlier this year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has demonstrated that when big issues are in play, she sees no problem forgoing the regular order Democrats pledged to restore when they gained control of the chamber.

By their own admission, that dynamic took some getting used to for the veteran Democratic legislators taking committee helms. “There’s been a bit of tension, because historically, prior to the 12 years we were out of power, committee chairmen were much more able to work their will without coordinating with Democratic leadership,” said Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a Pelosi confidant, who also said leaders and chairmen are “much more in sync this year.”

Democratic lawmakers and aides said Pelosi’s move to centralize power in her office is justified in part by the new realities of the institution. Daily messaging and incumbent protection — top priorities that demand constant attention — require that the agenda be dictated from the top of the leadership ladder.

“The leadership has made it clear that in order to maintain the majority, they sometimes need to put their thumb on the scale,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who was a top aide to then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). “There’s always been tension between leadership and committee chairs, and there always will be. But it’s very amicable. Both sides push and pull.”

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami described the Speaker’s relationship with her chairmen as collaborative.

“The Speaker has worked closely with all the chairmen and will continue to do so. It’s been a very productive relationship and together, along with the Caucus, they’ve accomplished quite a bit for the American people,” he said.

Nonetheless, several members of exclusive committees said they are hopeful that a return to regular order is on tap for next year. Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) said while Pelosi has been effective as a “hands-on manager,” many Democrats would rather “see things go through regular order.”

“It gives everybody a chance to have their input in the decision-making process,” he said.

There have been no shortage of instances in which Pelosi seized the initiative from her chairmen in crafting legislation.

Most famously, she clashed behind the scenes over the direction of energy policy with Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), leading Pelosi to undercut his jurisdiction last year by establishing the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee. The panel, headed by Pelosi ally Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), has no legislative authority, but the signal sent was clear: The Speaker intended to keep a firm grip on the issue, which she has called a signature one for her.

Last December, when Pelosi secured passage of a landmark energy bill that tightened fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, Dingell managed to secure some concessions for automakers, his hometown industry. But he made it clear he was unhappy with the process that produced a package he nonetheless voted for. “I have some reservations, to put it mildly, about how this legislation was assembled,” he said. “Many have been complicit in the curious process that has yielded an imperfect product.”

Last year, Pelosi shunned a proposal from Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) for a $150 billion surtax to fund the Iraq War. And she has frequently outmaneuvered Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) on matters the House’s tax-writing chief sought to influence. She ducked an endorsement of his proposed tax code overhaul last year. On a measure to expand children’s health insurance, Pelosi opted to avoid conference committee negotiations, prompting Rangel to complain the House had been “cut off at the knees.” This year, she reportedly left him out of final talks with Republicans over the shape of an economic stimulus package.

“It’s clear that she’s been more assertive and involved in things. But even on the stimulus package, I think everybody deferred to her and said, ‘Go for it,’” one Democratic lobbyist said. “She and Rangel have a sort of iterative relationship, where they check each other out along the way. If one feels strongly, they make the case.”

One Democratic lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there were good arguments to be made both for allowing the Speaker a stronger hand and for returning more authority to chairmen. “Protecting turf has a very high value here, and it often trumps good policy. On the other hand, the problem with centralizing power in the Speaker’s office is it ignores the talents and nuanced thinking of the committee process we’ve used,” the lawmaker said, adding, on balance, the latter approach is better.

Several Democrats said it is difficult to predict how the dynamic will evolve next year, if at all, pending the results of the November elections. But on one key point, Pelosi has already signaled she is not looking to hand power back to committee chairmen. As she was assuming power last year, Pelosi surprised the gavel-wielders by deciding to preserve in House rules the six-year term limits on chairmen authored by Republicans. The move prompted grumbling, but several chairmen said they received private assurances the rule would soon be reconsidered. It has remained on the books, and in a June interview with Roll Call, Pelosi signaled it could well stay there.

“We will deal with that issue when we deal with it,” she said.