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Democratic Committee Assignments Less Than a Zero-Sum Game

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Pelosi is making committee assignments for the 114th Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Democrats undeniably remain the fourth and smallest wheel in the congressional machine. And they’re still struggling to apply enough internal political grease to get their pieces of the legislative engine out of neutral.

The party now has its smallest share of House seats in almost nine decades — just 188, or 43 percent. In reality, its disadvantage is even more pronounced. That’s because Republicans have stuck with the custom that the party in control claims more than its fair share of the seats on committees, where the bulk of the chamber’s policy battles are effectively won or lost.

It’s easy to see the difficulties as Democratic leadership fills all the shrunken number of slots available to them, a prerequisite for the panels to begin the year’s workaday business of conducting hearings and marking up bills.

Assignments for the 19 freshmen (one committee each) and upgrades for just 13 others were unveiled only last week. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi conceded it may take several more meetings to complete the final rounds of duck, duck, goose.

It has been the equivalent of figuring out how to stuff 99 pounds of sugar into a 100-pound sack without any spillage or the bag bursting. Dozens of returning members — urged on by their pent-up ambitions and parochial dictates — bucked for promotion to more influential assignments, while the freshmen pressed for an initial posting that’s a plausible match for their interests and sounds prestigious enough to their new constituents. Lobbyists inveighed for or against lawmakers with certain ideologies being given certain assignments. Governors and senators argued their delegations are underrepresented in the top committee suites.

And every decision has to be ratified by the 51 members — a demographically and regionally diverse assemblage of more than one-quarter of the Democratic Caucus — on the Steering and Policy Committee. (As a practical matter, much of the horse-trading is engineered by the chairwomen of that group, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, with Pelosi’s blessing.)

Since no magic formula of committee assignments will be able to outvote the GOP to produce a burst of progressive legislating, the process in a macro sense is reminiscent of the old adage about academic politics: The passions run so high because the stakes are so low.

But that’s not true for the individual members, because the assignments remain the main drivers for their legislative agendas, media reputations and fundraising focus. That explains why some lawmakers resort to signaling to the leadership, without ever quite threatening, that if their aspirations remain unmet for too long they’ll decide to leave rather than keep toiling in the weakest among the quartet of partisan camps. (At this stage, there’s no realistic expectation the Democrats can reclaim the House before the next post-redistricting election in 2022, nor is there any plausible chance one party in the Senate will fall below 40 seats and lose its significant minority clout.)

The clearest Democratic winners so far are the five given seats on Energy and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over an extraordinary swath of domestic industry, from telecommunications to trash hauling. Yvette D. Clarke will be the panel’s third New Yorker, but its only African-American woman; fellow fifth-termer Dave Loebsack will take the “Iowa seat” left open by Bruce Braley’s unsuccessful Senate bid; Class of 2008 member Kurt Schrader of Oregon will fill the Blue Dog Coalition void created with the departures of Georgia’s John Barrow and Utah’s Jim Matheson; Tony Cárdenas is replacing Henry A. Waxman as the panel’s Los Angeles lawmaker; and his second-term colleague Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts becomes the only member from New England.

Of the handful of other veterans permitted to trade up so far, three stand out for having just survived some of the closest re-election scares of 2014. Ann Kirkpatrick will be able to stick up for Arizona’s farm economy on Agriculture, Scott Peters will be able to put his expertise in environmental regulatory law to work on Judiciary, and his fellow southern Californian Julia Brownley will now promote her suburban constituents’ interests on Transportation and Infrastructure.

There’s no evidence that any of the four caucus members who voted for somebody other than Pelosi for speaker last week will be punished through the committee assignment process, a fate being confronted by some of the Republicans who opposed John A. Boehner.

The one consolation for Democrats is that the paucity of plum postings isn’t nearly as bad as four years ago. The 2010 elections swept away more than one quarter of all the committee slots they’d commanded, and several dozen lawmakers who survived in the GOP takeover tide were nonetheless kicked off panels where they’d planned to make their careers. Eighteen of them were bounced from the three premier legislative panels: Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce.

Because of the departures and defeats in the next election, all but a handful were able to get back on those exclusive panels in 2013, while the leadership arranged for a pair of Marylanders to hold ranking member jobs elsewhere: Chris Van Hollen on Budget and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger on Intelligence.

Van Hollen is staying where he is, while Ruppersberger is readying his return to Appropriations now that Pelosi has exercised her prerogative and chosen Adam B. Schiff of California to be the new top Democrat on Select Intelligence. Steve Israel of New York — who didn’t have any committee assignments while running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — also is expected to pick up where he left off on the spending panel.

That leaves just one spot for a committee newcomer, and the safe bet is it will be Derek Kilmer of Washington. (The Pacific Northwest hasn’t had a Democratic appropriator since the 2012 retirement of his predecessor, Norm Dicks.)

Those musical chairs mean a single veteran lawmaker is without the prestigious policymaking post he once called home. Brian Higgins of Buffalo, N.Y., who got on Ways and Means in his third term in 2009, was forced off two years later and has been plotting his return ever since while trying to make the most of life on Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs. And that’s where he’ll stay for at least the next two years. As Ways and Means prepares to take the lead on two of the year’s hottest issues, corporate taxes and trade liberalization, not a single Democratic spot is available.

Their one potential opening, created when Allyson Y. Schwartz had to leave the House after losing her bid for governor, was taken by the Republicans — yet another spoil of their enormous victory.


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