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.”