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Democrats await key decisions on House Appropriations seats

Open slots on spending committee hinge on more senior members' plans, including No. 3 House Democrat

House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., participates in the House Democrats’ press conference following their caucus meeting in the Capitol on Jan. 10.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., participates in the House Democrats’ press conference following their caucus meeting in the Capitol on Jan. 10. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats this week will fill out their party’s committee assignments, which will involve a switch among top party leaders serving on Appropriations and removing four members from Ways and Means to adhere to a bipartisan agreement on committee ratios. 

The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the panel responsible for making committee assignments, will meet Tuesday and Wednesday after House votes — and possibly Thursday if any work remains — to populate committees. 

Democratic Caucus rules are different for Ways and Means and Appropriations since they require the steering panel to approve the nominations of members to those panels if they served on them in the previous Congress. For other committees, steering doesn’t need to consider seniority in making appointments, although they often do.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., wrote in a Sunday letter to his caucus that he reached an agreement on committee ratios with Republicans. Aside from Ways and Means, Jeffries said no returning member of the caucus would lose a committee seat they want to keep.

Both the majority and minority parties will have one more seat on Appropriations this Congress — 34 for the Republican majority, compared to the 33 Democrats had in the majority last Congress, and 27 for Democrats in the minority, compared to 26 Republicans last year. 

On Appropriations, 26 Democrats are expected to return, with six retirements and Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts planning to take a leave of absence from the committee while she serves as the No. 2 in Democratic leadership. 

It’s not yet clear if Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar of California will also take leadership leave — a practice among top Democrats that’s not formalized as caucus rule — or stay on Appropriations. Past caucus chairs, including Jeffries, served on committees, but that was before Democrats decided to move the position up a notch in leadership rankings to No. 3. 

The previous top three Democrats — Nancy Pelosi of California, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina — took leave from committees while serving in leadership, although Clyburn did chair the Select Oversight Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Pelosi is not planning to take committee assignments now that she is out of leadership, but Hoyer plans to return to Appropriations, where he retains seniority rights.

Hoyer, who is expected to serve as the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member, would effectively fill the spot Clark is temporarily vacating — although, like Hoyer, she would retain her seniority while on leave.  


Hoyer’s return to the committee would bring the total number of Democrats to 27, leaving no room for new members if Aguilar stays on. 

However, Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., could throw a wrinkle into the committee membership if he decides to return to Appropriations, where he retains seniority rights from taking leave to serve on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has vowed to remove Schiff from the Intelligence Committee, where Schiff has served as top Democrat since 2015. 

Jeffries wrote to McCarthy on Saturday urging the speaker, who makes appointments to the Intelligence Committee, to seat Schiff on it. 

Schiff signaled earlier this month that he was not eyeing a return to Appropriations, saying he is fully focused on remaining on Intelligence. A Schiff spokeswoman said McCarthy needs to formally remove him from the committee before the office is ready to discuss other potential committee assignments.  

Schiff is also on leave from the Judiciary Committee and could return to his seniority there instead of Appropriations if he loses his Intelligence seat. Democrats hopes McCarthy makes an announcement soon so they can resolve where Schiff and fellow California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, whom McCarthy is also planning to boot from the Intelligence panel, will land. 

If Schiff returns to Appropriations, Joseph D. Morelle, D-N.Y., could lose his spot as the least-senior member. Morelle was appointed in September after former Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., resigned to focus on his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for governor. 

Schiff’s return could also shake up the lineup of subcommittee ranking members. He would have the seniority to be the top Democrat on the State-Foreign Operations panel, a role currently held by Barbara Lee of California. Both Schiff and Lee are expected to run for Senate. 

Regardless of Schiff’s decision, there likely won’t be room for new members on Appropriations, despite Democrats requesting seats on the popular panel. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota sent a letter earlier this month expressing her interest in serving on the Appropriations Committee to “fight for investments in education, public health, the environment, infrastructure,” among other priorities. 

Omar wrote that she understands Appropriations seats are typically reserved for more senior members, but she believes she offers “a bold vision and unique background” that would benefit her as an appropriator “either in the 118th or in future Congresses.”

Omar also wants to continue serving on the Foreign Affairs and Education panels, but House Republicans are expected to try to vote her off Foreign Affairs. 

Ways and Means

House Ways and Means is keeping the same split it had last Congress, which means 25 seats for Republicans in the majority and 18 spots for Democrats now in the minority. Three Democrats on the panel didn’t seek reelection, so Democrats are left with 22 returning committee members.

After Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan F. Boyle took over as the top Democrat on the Budget Committee this year, he’s expected to step off Ways and Means but continue accruing seniority, which would account for one lost seat.

Democrats are expected to decide the remaining three exits based on seniority, but keep any members booted off involved in tax, trade and other issues before Ways and Means. A seniority-based decision would mean Jimmy Gomez of California and Steven Horsford of Nevada, along with Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett, would likely lose their spots.

Gomez and Horsford joined the panel in the same year as other Democrats, but have less seniority based on when they were elected to the House. Ways and Means includes four other California Democrats but no other lawmakers from Nevada.

Plaskett was the most recent Democratic addition to Ways and Means. Democrats tapped her for the seat in late 2020, and she touted her addition as the first delegate from a territory to be placed on the coveted panel. At the time, Plaskett pointed to the committee’s work on a range of issues, including the “rum cover over” that funnels rum tax revenue to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

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