What Happens When Democrats Lose More Than 100 Years of Committee Experience?

With vacancies pending at Banking, Commerce, HELP, Armed Services, and more, Dems will be challenged beyond Election Day.

Senate Majorirty Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks with reporters following the weekly policy luncheon for Senate Democrats April 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
April 23, 2014, 4:24 p.m.

If Sen­ate Demo­crats re­tain the cham­ber in Novem­ber, their work won’t be over. They’ll still have to man­age the loss of more than 100 years of com­mit­tee ex­per­i­ence as sev­er­al vet­er­ans re­tire from Demo­crat­ic ranks.

With new faces already in Fin­ance and En­ergy, and open­ings com­ing to Bank­ing, Com­merce, and Armed Ser­vices, the turnover could be a blow. Com­mit­tee chair­men, while per­haps not as power­ful as in years past, still wield con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence in the Sen­ate, shap­ing the agenda through hear­ings and shep­herd­ing le­gis­la­tion to the floor. Of the 100 bills that have be­come law so far this Con­gress, 91 have moved through com­mit­tees, ac­cord­ing to con­gres­sion­al re­cords.

More im­port­ant, some ex­perts say, is the loss of in­sti­tu­tion­al know-how that is key in an age of in­creas­ing gov­ern­ment com­plex­ity.

“It’s a little like what hap­pens to a cor­por­a­tion or a uni­versity when seni­or people leave,” said former Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ted Kauf­man of Delaware, who briefly suc­ceeded Joe Biden. “You’re faced with in­cred­ible prob­lems, and you’ve lost an in­cred­ible amount of in­sti­tu­tion­al memory.”

Kauf­man, who had served as a top aide to Biden, re­called that Re­id had asked him to sit on the Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee. “I went to the first hear­ing,” he said. “I had been around the Sen­ate for 40 years and thought I knew a lot about a lot of things, and the first half hour I didn’t un­der­stand what they were talk­ing about.”

On the flip side, this kind of turnover is not without pre­ced­ent, said Sen­ate his­tor­i­an Don­ald Ritch­ie, and law­makers have plenty of time to pre­pare be­fore tak­ing top jobs. “These mem­bers wait years to be chair­man,” he said. “The fact that these seni­or people are leav­ing doesn’t mean there will be any lax­ity at the top.”

With Sen. Ron Wyden of Ore­gon now at the reins at Fin­ance and Sen. Mary Landrieu head­ing En­ergy, that leaves Sen­ate Demo­crats in need of new chair­men to suc­ceed Sens. Tom Har­kin at Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions; Tim John­son at Bank­ing; Carl Lev­in at Armed Ser­vices; and Jay Rock­e­feller at Com­merce.

The most likely suc­cessors, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aides, are Sen. Patty Mur­ray of Wash­ing­ton at HELP and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Is­land at Armed Ser­vices. Who would fill Mur­ray’s role at the Budget Com­mit­tee if she does take that post, and wheth­er Sen. Sher­rod Brown of Ohio or Sen. Chuck Schu­mer of New York would suc­ceed John­son, are murky, aides said. Demo­crats typ­ic­ally fol­low seni­or­ity to pick chair­men, but some mem­bers would qual­i­fy for the top spot at mul­tiple com­mit­tees.

In fact, so re­li­ant are Demo­crats on seni­or­ity that Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id lets mem­bers sort top com­mit­tee spots among them­selves, ac­cord­ing to a former Demo­crat­ic aide. The aide poin­ted to John­son’s as­sum­ing of the Bank­ing gavel in 2011, des­pite health is­sues, as an ex­ample of the strict seni­or­ity prac­tice among Demo­crats.

Chart­ing who will chair which com­mit­tee might be a fa­vor­ite Wash­ing­ton par­lor game — and vi­tal to the con­fer­ence — but some raise doubts about how much it mat­ters to voters. “These days be­ing as­so­ci­ated with any­thing in Wash­ing­ton isn’t what it used to be,” said Mark Strand, pres­id­ent of the Con­gres­sion­al In­sti­tute.

But chair­man­ships do mean something back in the states. In Rhode Is­land, for ex­ample, Reed could use the com­mit­tee chair­man’s perch to help the state’s siz­able Navy foot­print, in­clud­ing the sub­mar­ine yard in Quon­set. “The world’s best blue-col­lar jobs, man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, hap­pen to be build­ing sub­mar­ines,” said Rhode Is­land polit­ic­al ana­lyst Scott MacK­ay.

The turnover is also be­ing closely mon­itored by K Street, which re­lies on le­gis­lat­ive work at the com­mit­tee level as a point of entry to in­flu­ence bills.

The Amer­ic­an Truck­ing As­so­ci­ations, for in­stance, is lob­by­ing on sur­face-trans­port­a­tion le­gis­la­tion, and a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the com­mit­tee chair­man is para­mount. “We can’t throw our hands up and say there are too many obstacles,” said Dave Osiecki, ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent. “We have to be in the game and we will con­tin­ue to be in the game.”

Still, the re­l­at­ive de­cline of the com­mit­tee chair­man’s power is real, some ob­serv­ers in­sist, point­ing to the raft of mes­saging bills and last-minute, crisis-avert­ing le­gis­la­tion craf­ted in the lead­ers’ of­fices in re­cent years.

“The big com­plaint is that we have too many people who are ob­serv­ers and not policy makers,” Strand said. “Mem­bers don’t have a lot do but vote. You look at the days of Ted Kennedy. He had enorm­ous power to get things done. Those days are done.”

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