Congress’s committee chairmen push to reassert their power


Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) presides while Treasury Secretary nominee Jack Lew testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill Wednesday, February 13, 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
February 16, 2013

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) is chairman of the esteemed House Ways and Means Committee, the oldest of all congressional panels and one with so much influence over the workings of the federal government that past Way and Means chairmen were routinely described as the most powerful men in Washington.

But committee chairmanships are not what they used to be on Capitol Hill.

When the House voted Jan. 1 to allow tax increases on wealthy wage earners, the most significant tax increase in more than two decades, Camp found himself advocating passage of an unpopular compromise that he had had no role in crafting.

The deal, unpopular with both the GOP rank and file, had been cut between the White House and Senate leaders, and no one particularly loved it. But it was what it took to avert yet another crisis. As the vote began, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sneaked onto the floor to vote yes and disappeared, while the other senior leaders discreetly voted nay.

“I never felt so alone on a floor full of people,” Camp said weeks later.


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How does a major piece of tax legislation get to the House floor without the approval of the chairman of the once-powerful Ways and Means committee?

As Congress has turned into a partisan battlefield, lurching from crisis to crisis, the difficult, tedious, careful work of writing legislation has been replaced by hurried, haphazard deals brokered at the edge of disaster with brinkmanship and confrontation.

But now Camp is part of a bloc of committee chairmen in the House and Senate trying to reassert themselves and reverse course; their aim is to re-establish their chairmanship gavels as meaningful tentacles of power after years of watching the legislative process atrophy, along with their roles in it. Tired of watching as flailing leadership negotiations fail to produce any key legislation, these senior lawmakers hope that a return to the old days of subcommittee hearings and bill markups, floor amendments and conference reports may offer a path forward on everything from immigration to a long-term budget plan.

“We’re all frustrated. We all wish there was more legislating and less messaging,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Some chairmen are pushing legislation without a green light from their leaders, some have created their own vote-counting operations, and Senate committee leaders recently defused a fight on filibuster rules with a compromise that gives them more power.

The overarching demand is for “regular order.” which is congressional speak for how things are supposed to work — at least how things used to work. Their hopes are straight out of the old Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” anthem, where bills start in subcommittees and move to full committees and competing versions are passed by each chamber, leading to a conference committee to iron out the differences. A final version gets approved and sent to the president for his signature.

That process, already withering away over the last decade, broke down completely in the 112th Congress. Senior aides could not point to a single significant bill introduced in the past two years that moved along those old procedural tracks. The Senate, intended as the more prudent, less fractious house, set a modern record for futility in 2011 and 2012 by holding just 486 votes — about 175 fewer roll calls than a normal two-year session.

Instead of producing legislation the old-fashioned way, Republicans and President Obama jousted over a series of deadlines — expiring funding for federal agencies, exhausting Treasury’s borrowing authority, expiring tax cuts — that led to a recurring series of crises that left Congress deeply unpopular.

At the start of fiscal cliff talks Obama and Boehner tried to reach a pact to halt more than $500 billion worth of tax hikes and automatic spending cuts this year alone. The final plan was hatched on New Year’s Eve over the phone by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), allowing taxes to go up on family income above $450,000 and temporarily staving off the spending cuts.

Neither Camp nor Baucus, whose panels have tax-writing authority, played a real part in those talks. Members of Camp’s committee said the chairman was privately furious and felt hung out to dry as he was forced to advocate legislation backed by just 85 of 236 Republicans.

About that time, the House and Senate appropriations committees had essentially worked out a compromise to provide full funding for agencies for 2013, but Boehner’s leadership team rejected the idea of bringing the measure to a vote for fear of angering conservatives over some agency spending levels, according to lawmakers and aides. Instead, the federal government continues under a short-term measure that expires March 27.

“You just see your work product thrown away,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs an appropriations subcommittee funding transportation.

Cole said the committee instituted its own vote-counting operation after stumbles in 2011 by the leadership’s whip team, noting that today’s hyper-politicized environment leaves leadership teams younger, more aggressive and more focused on fund-raising.

“They’re more and more disconnected from the life of an average member, and a lot of them got there without having done much at the committee level,” he said.

Boehner blames the Senate for the breakdown, failing to take up dozens of bills passed by the House. Senate leaders blame the speaker for being unwilling to reach legitimate half-a-loaf compromises for fear of inciting the rebellious far right wing of his caucus, making regular order pointless.

Some are anxious to see whether committee chairmen can get the job done this year. “I look forward to the good ol’ days,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) recently quipped.

With or without the go-ahead from above, some chairmen are pushing ahead. As senior staff tell it, some chairmen have adopted the “Nike rule”: Just do it.

At the House GOP retreat in mid-January, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Camp convinced Boehner’s leadership team to approve a short-term extension of the debt ceiling to buy time and to try to re-establish regular order.

“At this point it’s the only process that gives us hope,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), a close ally of Camp, noting how often Boehner-Obama negotiations have hit a dead end. “We certainly know the other process doesn’t work.”

Camp has advanced several drafts of tax reform despite private warnings from Boehner about moving too fast on such a sensitive topic, Republicans said.

In the Senate, Baucus has held meetings with committee members to discuss tax reform and how to handle the debt ceiling, which is expected to be reached in the summer. According to senators and aides, Baucus has pushed tax reform even if it does not raise additional revenue for the Treasury, a position opposed by Reid.

Last summer Baucus’s panel approved a collection of tax extensions for select industries on a large bipartisan vote, but their work was set aside by Democratic leaders who preferred to wait until the end-of-year showdown. Some of those so-called tax extenders made it into the fiscal cliff legislation.

Reid is allowing the Budget Committee to draft a detailed spending plan, the first in recent years. Rather than the annual free-wheeling “vote-a-rama” that accompanies Senate budget debates, Reid has instead relied on the dollar amounts agreed to in the August 2011 debt ceiling legislation to serve as a spending framework.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, led a bipartisan group that pulled the Senate back from a push by junior Democrats to blow up long-standing filibuster rules. The key compromise was assuring that, even if Reid tried to jam legislation through the chamber without Republican input, there would be a guarantee of four amendments. Two of those would belong to the chairman and ranking Republican overseeing the debate, assuring them a key role.

“There was a lot of discussion in our group about getting back to the committee process,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), part of Levin’s group and the top Republican on the health committee. “All eight of us are eager to make the committees function better.”

Some chairmen, however, wonder how the process will work. More than a third of House members were first elected in 2010 and 2012. In the Senate, 32 of its 100 members have served two years or less.

“They’ve never seen regular order,” said House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). “We’ve got an education problem.”

Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

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