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Mark Peterson on Senate Committees

In reply to this post, Mark Peterson, a political scientist at UCLA, e-mails a more expert take on the culture and rules of the Senate's "power committees."

Long ago Richard Fenno wrote about the congressional committees and the differences among them (some of which is now dated, to be sure, but there are elements that remain). The leadership always made some distinction among committees on the basis of what they do--Appropriations, Ways & Means, Finance were all "power" committees. Because they dealt with the Federal Treasury, there was a desire to avoid firebrands and focus on people who had in one way or another established their credentials as reasonable protectors of the treasury.

That's changed some, as I say, but there is a more natural tendency towards small-c conservative/moderate/temperate on committees that involve taxing and spending. The social policy committees tend to draw the more ideological and more committed to left or right positions.

With that as context, given the fact that committee chairs are chosen from the ranks of the members of the committee majority-party members, and typically by seniority, the tax/spending committees (throw in budget now) are going to be chaired by people of long experience in the context of less partisan, more centrist, more temperate committees. Where you may be right is that the process becomes circular. Those chairs, based on who they are, how they got to the committee in the first place, and what they experienced, are not likely to change the dynamics, and thus reinforce whatever signals are sent to new senators.

When I worked in the Senate for Daschle (who got a place on Finance right from the start, and co-chaired the Democratic Policy Committee because of his early support for Mitchell as majority leader), we had a meeting of all of the staff who worked for members of the Finance Committee, along with the Finance Committee staff. A fellow sitting next to me worked for a senator who has just moved from Labor and Human Resources (now HELP) to Finance. He was stunned--I mean really stunned--that we were having a meeting of all the staff--Democrats and Republicans together, in the same room, as one big group. That, he said, would never happen at Labor and Human Resources. That difference was not only because of the difference between Bentsen and Kennedy (after all, Kennedy had a reputation for working across the aisle, had a great relationship with Hatch, etc.), but of the long-standing traditions that had developed in those committees.

But over time, the Congress has a whole has become much more partisan and divided (there are few people in the middle of the political spectrum, the center of the Dem caucus has moved left, the center of the Republican caucus has move hard right), and eventually that process will affect even Finance.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 27, 2009; 6:19 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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How is it possible to believe that the Democrats have moved left? To assert such an obviously ludicrous, nonsensical, idiotic, stupid, ridiculous, and fatuous notion is to indict oneself as a fool.


Posted by: thehersch | August 28, 2009 1:38 AM | Report abuse

The center of the Dem caucus, to my qualitative eye, has moved mildly right to end up close to the center of the electorate. If he thinks it has moved left, I would like to see some data indicating such. Also, how he defines left and right since it seems to me those are contingent on where the electorate currently resides. The mean of the public is defined to be moderate.

Posted by: pj_camp | August 28, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

"Eventually it will reach Finance"

I don't know at the staff level but clearly it already has at the Senatorial level. The most underreported story coming out of finance is how and why Baucus was able to freeze the entire center-left out of negotiations including the Chair of the Finance Sub-Committee on Health (Rockefeller) while simultaneously declaring the HELP version DOA. That was an open declaration of war not only against Rockefeller but clearly an open defiance of Kennedy, he might as well put up a sign "No liberals or Irishment". Yet the press dutifully reported on this 'Bi-Partisan Gang of Six', blithely ignoring that until July 23rd it was a Gang of Seven with a Republican majority (when Hatch was included)

If this was Latin America we would be talking about a coup against democratic rule and the installation of a junta in Senate Finance, instead the situation is treated as the most normal thing in the world.

Why Reid allowed this to happen and why Rockefeller seemingly just sat back and took it is a mystery to me.

Posted by: BruceWebb | August 28, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

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