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Committee Questions

It's true that Ted Kennedy could only rack up his incredible list of achievements because he was elected as a young man and thus had the time to amass incredible seniority. The same goes for Joe Biden, or Max Baucus, or virtually any of the longtime committee chairmen who are still sharp enough to chair a meeting. Youth is only a bit less important in the eventual power of Senate candidates than in Supreme Court nominees, but it is discussed much less openly.

But I'd add another procedural decision to that list: committee selection. When a senator enters the chamber, he or she can request committee assignments, but the final decision rests with the party leadership. The really strategic thing to do would be to stock powerful committees -- like the Finance Committee -- with young, hungry liberals. But in practice, tradition tends to matter more. Liberals gravitate toward the HELP Committee, just as Ted Kennedy did when he entered the Senate. Conservatives and moderates gravitate toward Finance. In recent years, the Budget Committee has attracted some more liberal members -- in particular, Sheldon Whitehouse and Bernie Sanders -- but it's traditionally been a bit more conservative.

My working theory has always been that this is largely a question of chairmen. A hard-driving liberal will find a lot more favor on a committee where Kennedy controls the agenda than one where Max Baucus has his hand on the gavel. And vice versa for a centrist. Plus, the chairman presumably has some influence over who gets assigned to his committee. That said, I've not really reported on the subject, so there are certainly people with more knowledge on this than I have. If any such people are reading the blog, write a comment or shoot me a note.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 27, 2009; 12:06 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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I would think that, irrespective of ideology, a new Senator would look to get on at least one committee with senior members near retirement or endangered electorally, as those would be the fastest ways to seniority.

Posted by: JEinATL | August 27, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

All Senators want to be on Finance Committee. It's the foremost money raising position. Leadership doles out those slots based largely on electoral vulnerability or, eventually, seniority. This largely accounts for why you get some fairly centrist Members on the Committee. Same goes the other Super A Committees like Approps, and Armed Services. Freshmen almost never get those Committees unless they are perceived to be particularly vulnerable - recent examples include Salazar to Finance and Tester to Approps based on a promise Reid issued during his Campaign.

Look at the other Committee selections to get an idea of where the Members interests lie.

Posted by: DCMike | August 27, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

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