Congress Needs Reforms, but Committees Don't Need More Power

If Republicans win control of the House of Representatives, I have no doubt that John Boehner as Speaker will make the chamber far more transparent and fair to rank-and-file legislators of both parties. There will be more time to debate legislation, more chances to offer amendments, and more opportunity for the public to digest the implications of major legislation.

But one reform idea was previewed in the press last week that I think is terrible–the notion of giving Republican committee chairmen more power and deference to write the bills as they see fit.

Why is this such a bad idea?

Because committee chairmen are typically in Washington too long. These old bulls grow far too cozy with the industries they represent year in and year out. They are loathe to peel away the moss of conventional policy wisdom that has grown over time. They have normally spent so much time trying to avoid controversy in order to secure their positions that they have forgotten how to fight. Tinker with the programs, yes. Structural reforms, no.

Why do you want Frank Lucas and his committee of members who love farm subsidies and represent farm communities to have more discretion about the size and scope of the next farm bill?

Why do you want Jerry Lewis and the infamous appropriators who earmarked their way into the minority to have more of a say in how taxpayer dollars are spent?

Why do you want John Mica and his members on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to be given deference to lard up another massive highway bill full of earmarks?

Simply put, you don’t.

Now that certainly doesn’t mean that taxpayers are better served by having all legislation written by the Leadership. True reform would mean a whole sale restructuring of the committees themselves and a decentralization of power away from the Leadership. (Perhaps this is the direction Leadership is headed, but its not the natural inclination of politicians to give up power, and so its worth pointing out now.)

For instance, Republicans need to get rid of a committee or two. Small Business Committee, I’m looking at you.

The Rules of the House and the Congressional budget process need to provide much more ability for a subset of members, such as the conservative Republican Study Committee, to slow a legislative juggernaut if Leadership has ignored good sense or conservative principles. This doesn’t mean you turn the House completely into the Senate, but the conservative reformers need to look for the areas where Leadership’s power will need to be checked in the future (waiving the budget to pass bills, scheduling new programs for consideration, allowing earmarks) and attempt to box them in ahead of time. And a conservative Leadership, knowing the political strains that will materialize, should want to be so constrained.

Another idea is for the Steering Committee, which is charged with assigning members to committees (and which Boehner dominates), to appoint members to committees who are skeptical of the programs under their purview–people who actually want to save some money rather than spend it.   For instance, I know we can’t put him everywhere, but why not put Jeff Flake on the Appropriations or Transportation Committees?

Kudos to Republicans for talking about reforming the House of Representatives.  They need to, but they’d be wise not to transform the House from a dictatorship into an oligarchy of old bull chairmen.  It will come back to haunt them, and it will haunt those of us who are going to trust them with the power to govern again.