Committee Leadership in Congress
Summary of a Congress Project Seminar with Rep.William M. Thomas (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; former Rep. Howard E. Wolpe, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center; Daniel J. Palazzolo, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond; and Elizabeth A. Palmer, Legal Affairs Reporter, CQ Weekly.
University of Richmond Political Scientist Daniel Palazzolo explained how context and personal leadership styles and skills combine to affect the direction of the legislative process and policy outcomes in the Congress. In an original paper prepared for the seminar, "Tax Policy and Committee Leadership: A Comparison of Representative Bill Thomas and Senator Charles Grassley," he used a case study of President Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut in 2001 to highlight the differences between the House and Senate and their respective tax committees and chairmen. Whereas in the House the tax bill's saga was a partisan process given the the deep ideological differences between the parties over taxes, in the Senate it was a more bipartisan process, with Chairman Grassley reaching out to Ranking Democrat Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to develop a consensus package. What enabled Grassley to work with Democrats where Thomas could not was the fact that seven of the Finance Committee Democratic members were from states Bush carried in 2000. Thomas struck early in the House, moving even before the Budget Resolution had been agreed to, and moved separate bills on the marriage penalty, estate tax, and tax rates. Grassley waited until after the Budget Resolution had been adopted to move a tax bill under the reconciliation rules which limit debate and amendment, thereby avoiding a filibuster. In summary, Thomas and Grassley skillfully played their respective committees and chambers under differing conditions. That the House and Senate eventually reached an agreement on a bill the President could sign so early in his Administration is especially impressive given the closeness of the election and the closeness of the party ratios in both houses.
Chairman Thomas praised Palazzolo on his paper, but cautioned that "it is virtually impossible to extrapolate from what happened at the outset of the Bush Administration." What happened "was 90 percent an act of will," Thomas continued, and thus "it may well be a one-time event." Thomas said he was focused on how you could get some stimulus effect out of the tax cut. "The way the Senate works is logrolling: Senators will come to a package if the package comes to them." In the House, he continued, "we had to proceed from votes we had taken in the past on taxes and the positions we had taken in the most recent election campaigns." It would have been impossible to find a middle ground with most Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee since most are more liberal than the rest of their party in the House, and Republican members are more conservative. Thomas said another factor that made enactment of the tax bill a one-time event was the fact that it was early in the Administration and a lot of top positions had not been filled. "We probably could not have done this today because their would have been too many people in the room. About eight is enough to carry on successful negotiations."
Howard Wolpe explained how, in his second term in the House, he and Mike Barnes (D-Md.) challenged the seniority system and won the chairmanships of the Africa and Inter-American Affairs Subcommittees of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Subcommittee chairmanships can be useful and effective positions not only to develop expertise and initiate legislation, but also as a platform for issue advocacy. Wolpe used his chairmanship to lead on the sanctions issue against South Africa and to publicize the famine and starvation in Ethiopia. He found the best way to reach out to your ideological opposites in the House is to develop personal friendships and to show the members the realities on the ground elsewhere in the world.
Betsy Palmer observed that the House of Representatives is now in an "undefined era" in history, in which neither committee chairs nor party leaders control the balance of power. "There is not a huge power base for either the Speaker or Committee chairman to wield power because the margin of control has shrunk so much." One example of this undefined era, said Palmer, is the action of the House Judiciary Committee on the President's proposed anti-terrorism bill that contained sweeping provisions affecting civil liberties. And yet, the new chairman of Judiciary, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) worked closely with Ranking Democrat John Conyers and the rest of the committee in reporting a bill, 36-0. This was unheard of since the two parties never agree on anything in that committee. But then the Republican Leadership substituted a bill more to the President's liking on the floor. Eventually the compromise reached between the two Houses swung back to something closer to what House Judiciary originally reported. Sensenbrenner later explained that he had seen how nothing got done on the committee when he was in the minority and vowed that would not be the case if he ever became chairman. "If you want to know how Congress works," concluded Palmer, "you've got to look at the committees and at the personalities that drive them."