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Select Panels Offer Speakers Additional Powers and Pitfalls

Several years ago I puzzled aloud to a friend over what seemed to be an oxymoronic name for a committee: the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. I speculated that it was because the committee's special secrecy rules were so different from standing committees' sunshine rules that it was in a class of its own.

"No," my friend responded, "that's not the reason. The only reason Intelligence is a select committee is so the Speaker will have exclusive authority to appoint all its members." Standing committee members, by contrast, require party caucus approval and election by the House.

In the case of the Intelligence Committee this is especially important given the sensitive nature of its responsibilities and documents. The leadership needs to carefully screen and control potential Intel members to avoid embarrassing leaks or grandstanding.

That "a-ha" moment came back to me in the runup to this Congress when the Speaker-to-be, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), decided not to appoint the former ranking member, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), to be chairwoman of the committee. According to one report, "Pelosi was not willing to bend the committee's unique term-limit rules for Harman."

That explanation conveniently overlooks the fact that House rules were changed four years ago to remove any term limit on the chairman and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee. Nevertheless, it is the Speaker's call to make without regard to seniority or prior service. Pelosi further demonstrated this by skipping over the next-ranking Democrat to name Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) as chairman.

On a related matter, on Jan. 9 the House created a "select intelligence oversight panel" — this one within the Appropriations Committee. This was ostensibly done as part of the Democrats' commitment to implement the remaining 9/11 commission recommendations. Unfortunately, such a select oversight panel was not what the commission called for. Instead, it recommended either giving the existing Intelligence committees appropriations authority, or, in the alternative, combining the House and Senate Intelligence committees into a joint committee.

The third way chosen by House Democrats actually further complicates the problem by setting up an Appropriations oversight subcommittee on not only "budget requests" but also "execution of intelligence activities" — clearly duplicative of the authorizing committee's oversight duties. The new 13-member panel will at least include three members from the Intelligence Committee.

But funding authority for the intelligence community remains with the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, chaired by the Speaker's good friend, ally and unsuccessful pick for Majority Leader, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). Murtha clearly has no intention of honoring the 9/11 commission's two other requests to make public "the overall amounts of money being appropriated for national intelligence and to its component agencies," let alone of doing so in "a separate appropriations act for intelligence."

The 9/11 commission also recommended eliminating the three-term limit on House Intelligence Committee members — something the Democrats also forgot to do. In short, the Democrats came up 0 for 4 on 9/11 commission Congressional intelligence reforms.

The most recent chapter in the select committee saga of the 110th Congress is Pelosi's announced intention to appoint a Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. According to the Speaker's Jan. 18 press release, the purpose of the select committee is "to raise the visibility of these urgent issues and gather critical information to protect America's security." However, she added, it would "not have legislative jurisdiction." Pelosi also said she asked the eight standing committees of jurisdiction over energy, environment and technology to report legislation by June "so that this year Independence Day is also ‘Energy Independence Day.'"

Powerful House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) called the select committee proposal about as useful and relevant as "feathers on a fish." But it was Dingell who provided the feathers in a pillow fight with the Speaker that caused her to back off from giving the select committee any real authority.

This absence of legislative authority runs contrary to how previous Speakers used select committees to coordinate omnibus legislation. For instance, in 1977, Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) created an Ad Hoc Committee on Energy, chaired by his good friend, Rep. Lud Ashley (D-Ohio), to pull together the pieces of President Jimmy Carter's energy bill as reported by other committees. And in 2002, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) gave similar authority to a select committee chaired by Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) to pull together the pieces reported by other committees on legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security. Select committees can be used to supplement, rather than supplant, the useful work of committees in achieving a final legislative solution.

Pelosi is still finding her way in trying to create a balance between party leadership powers and committee powers in guiding policies of importance to the nation through the legislative labyrinth. Select committees can be useful devices in helping to coordinate, consolidate and polish the work of standing committees. If not, they can become the kind of extraneous oversight mechanisms they became in the 1970s and '80s. Then, four select panels, in existence for several Congresses, detracted from and undermined the work of standing committees. Majority Democrats, after considerable prodding by Republicans, eventually saw the light and pulled the plug on all four panels in 1993.

It's nice to create additional committee slots for newer Members and throw a bone (or gavel) or two to favored senior Members. But before exercising the power to appoint select committees, Speakers must have clear and specific purposes in mind, backed by real powers that will produce meaningful results by a date certain.


Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.


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