Shrinking House Committees May Pinch Democratic Leaders

Posted December 9, 2010 at 5:58pm

Updated: 7:40 p.m.

Rank-and-file House Democrats worried about the downsizing of committees have begun to question whether party leaders such as Reps. John Larson (Conn.) and Xavier Becerra (Calif.) should step down from plum panels to make room for others.

The details of committee reapportionments for the 112th Congress began to leak out Thursday, but Democrats were expressing quiet concern about the number of lawmakers who will be cut even before they started learning the extent of the damage.

Several Democratic aides said the unrest would not stay under wraps for long after Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) release the final totals.

On the Ways and Means Committee, for example, Republicans will add 10 new members to their ranks, bringing their total to 22 members, according to a list obtained by Roll Call. They reduced the number of Democratic slots from 26 to 15, according to a GOP aide with knowledge of the cuts. Democrats have not confirmed the number.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), who ranks 13th on the Ways and Means Committee, said earlier Thursday that he had heard “rumbles” about the imminent cuts. Asked whether he thought Members in elected leadership should take one for the team and step aside from committees, he said, “Yeah, no doubt about it.”

In the past, party leaders have given up seats to curry favor with the Caucus, including Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who voluntarily gave up his seat on Appropriations in the 106th Congress to make room for another Member. Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who will remain in leadership positions next year, will not serve on committees.

But Caucus Chairman Larson and Caucus Vice Chairman Becerra intend to keep their positions on Ways and Means.

“I’m proud to be elected by my peers to serve as Caucus Chairman,” Larson said in a statement. “I understand the concern of the members. However, Ways and Means is the only Committee I will sit on and it is of vital importance to my district.”

Becerra also announced his intention to stay on the committee in a statement. “Like any member, I do my best to serve the interests of my constituents and my country in the opportunities afforded to me,” he said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Ways and Means Committee to advance the Democratic agenda in the 112th Congress.”

The issues have not come up in Democratic leadership meetings, according to sources familiar with the matter.

One Democratic aide said Members have not come to terms with the facts of life that come with being the party out of power.

“They are really going to have an awakening to the realities of being in the minority,” the aide said. “This isn’t so much about what committees the elected leaders sit on, it’s about sharing the burden and softening the blow for as many people as possible.”

The aide added that the leadership members have a considerable amount of influence over legislation “regardless of what committee you sit on.”

Another Democratic aide said there is a growing sentiment among the rank and file that the leadership needs to acknowledge the “faith and trust” the Caucus has given them by re-electing the same team, despite the disastrous midterm election results.

“It would be a signal to the rank and file that everyone is seen as valuable,” the aide said, adding that committee assignments could be integral in retaining the Members who did not lose in 2010.

Republicans also will face a crunch for space on the most desirable committees. The influx of new Members and promises by the GOP to shrink committees mean they will also have some tough decisions to make among their own.

More than 40 current Republican lawmakers and incoming freshmen have requested positions on either Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce — far more than can be accommodated because the leadership has pledged to cut committee size on both sides of the aisle.

Both Boehner and Majority Leader-designate Eric Cantor (R-Va.) stepped off their committees.

Not all rank-and-file Members were opposed to party leaders continuing to serve on sought-after committees.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), who could lose his slot on Appropriations when the committee ratios are set, said he is not opposed to leaders also having committee slots.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “People have different areas of expertise. They’ve developed experience on committees, and that’s a positive.”

Steven T. Dennis and Anna Palmer contributed to this report.