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The Opaque World of Committee Assignments

How did Young, a freshman-to-be, end up with a committee assignment on Appropriations? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
How did Young, a freshman-to-be, end up with a committee assignment on Appropriations? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One of the older truisms routinely applied to politicians is, “Where you stand is where you sit.” In other words, their ideology flows clearly from their life experience. And on Capitol Hill, there is this corollary: “Where you sit is what you do.”  

That neatly summarizes the importance of committee assignments in the lives of so many lawmakers. And it helps explain why two dozen favored members of the next Congress got to breathe big sighs of relief before Thanksgiving, while all the others are returning for the rest of the lame-duck session to confront complex battles for the remaining placements.  

The jockeying and suspense will be especially acute in the House. Its 435 seats make specialization something close to a job requirement, so committee membership takes on outsize importance in driving each member’s legislative priorities and perceived areas of expertise — and in many cases fundraising focus as well. That helps explain why campaigning for a good assignment is an essential focus during every newly elected member’s two-month transition to office, and why the party leaders act as the gatekeepers of membership.  

It’s a very different situation in the Senate. Because of statewide constituencies, each senator has a vested interest in becoming familiar with several different areas of public policy. With almost 400 committee seats but only 100 people to fill them, each senator is guaranteed a spot on at least one of the most powerful panels. And because of the seniority system’s continued sway over the institution, the veterans generally get the pick of the litter and the newcomers are left to choose from the best of the rest.  

All that, plus the uncertainty of the runoff in Louisiana, means returning senators won’t know for sure about openings on the so-called A committees until the second week in December, with freshmen left waiting to start assessing targets of opportunity.  

In the House, the biggest winners have already been announced. Nine Republicans first elected in 2010 and nine from the Class of 2012 (including a pair of subsequent special-election winners) have been tapped for the committees with the most powerful legislative jurisdictions, which therefore provide their membership with the most robust flows of campaign cash. That’s Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Ways and Means. Another three seats on the banking panel and two on the spending panel were awarded to incoming freshmen. The process will quickly accelerate. The GOP Steering Committee — 32 members of the leadership, committee elders and advocates for members from different regions — reconvenes Monday to begin considering requests from the party’s remaining three-dozen freshmen and from incumbents hoping to upgrade their seating assignments. By week’s end, the Democrats’ comparable 51-member panel is expected to at least fill the party’s dozen openings on the four most influential panels — often dubbed “the money committees.”  

The assignments so far offer some insight into the byzantine world of panel placements, in which the reasons why members end up in certain seats are not always readily apparent or are downright opaque.  

What immediately stands out is how virtually all the plum postings went to members of the establishment conservative wing — a further sign that, four years after the tea party wave brought the Republicans back to power in the House, the majority’s leadership sees no need to reward those still in the once-pivotal camp of confrontationalists .  

It’s easy to understand wanting a seat on Ways and Means in almost any year, and especially when the time appears ripe for a corporate tax overhaul. Less obvious is why one of the four openings was claimed by George Holding of North Carolina, a federal prosecutor for almost a decade before his election in 2012. Well, until one notices that his state and its burgeoning business community would otherwise have the biggest GOP House delegation (10 members) in 2015 without anyone on that committee.  

There’s only the slimmest chance the GOP will realize its goals for rolling back federal regulation of Wall Street. But that’s not going to stop the commercial banks, investment firms, insurance companies, asset managers and even payday lenders from giving generously in hopes of making double-sure Financial Services doesn’t change its mind. That’s one reason why dozens sought coveted openings on the panel, and half of the party’s eight available seats went to people already contemplating expensive 2016 campaigns to hold on in purple districts : Scott Tipton of Colorado, newcomer Bruce Poliquin of Maine, and comeback 2014 winners Frank Guinta of New Hampshire and Robert Dold of Illinois.  

It makes intuitive sense that a pair of seats on Energy and Commerce went to lawmakers from states that boast booming oil and natural gas economies but no current panel representation: Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. More superficially surprising is how the first openings were claimed by two of the seven Republicans from Indiana, although both postings make sense in other ways. The leadership’s trust in Susan W. Brooks already has been manifested in her freshman term assignments to both the Ethics and Benghazi committees , while Larry Bucshon gave up his cardiovascular surgery practice so he could come to Congress in hopes of being a player on health care policy.  

Each of the Appropriations assignments seems to have some ready logic. Not only is Evan Jenkins a political “giant killer” (he defeated 19-term Democrat Nick J. Rahall II), his state of West Virginia also counts on federal largesse to prop up its fragile economy. But the Mountain State hasn’t had an appropriator in its delegation since the decade began. Two others are longtime senior staffers who successfully maneuvered to take the committee seats their predecessors held for decades: David Jolly, the late C.W. Bill Young’s successor in Florida, and David Young, elected to the Iowa seat left open by the retirement of Tom Latham. And Scott Rigell was his delegation’s choice for the spot reserved since the early 1970s for a Republican from Virginia, which has more federal workers than any other state. (Frank R. Wolf, who’s retiring, has held that slot since 1985.)  

Many don’t even try for these “exclusive” panels, and for them there are plenty of good seats still available.  

A lawmaker with an Air Force base in her backyard may well consider Armed Services the Holy Grail, just as a member with a district bisected by an aging Interstate may want nothing more than Transportation and Infrastructure. The most socially conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats are happy to get recruited for Judiciary, while the conservationists on the left and the private-property-rights advocates on the right both view Natural Resources as a great place to work. Free-market Republicans and pro-labor Democrats view Education and the Workforce as a worthy platform, while members from the nation’s breadbasket have almost an obligation to put in time on Agriculture — no matter their ideology or more genuine policy interests.  

And for the isolationist who’s consigned to Foreign Affairs, the conscientious objector who ends up on Veterans Affairs or the corporate lawyer who gets stuck with Small Business? There’s always two years from now.  



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