Com­mit­tee chairs seek to re­assert power in Congress

Amid par­ti­san di­vide, they want to reestab­lish ‘reg­u­lar or­der’

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY PAUL KANE kanep@wash­ Lori Mont­gomery contributed to this report.

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.

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 reestab­lish 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 past 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 fundrais­ing.

“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 com- prom­ises 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 ( Wis.) and Camp per­suaded Boehner’s lead­er­ship team to ap­prove a short-term ex­ten­sion of the debt ceil­ing to buy time and to try to reestab­lish reg­u­lar or­der.

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

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 ( 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.”


“We all wish there was more leg­is­lat­ing and less mes­sag­ing,” said Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Bau­cus (D-Mont.), right.


House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) blames the Se­nate for the leg­isla­tive break­down. Se­nate lead­ers say he is un­will­ing to com­pro­mise for fear of in­cit­ing the far-right wing of his cau­cus.


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