Here Are America’s Most Wanted (House Committee Chairmen)

Congressional committees are kind of like Hogwarts.

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Stephanie Stamm and Emma Roller
June 5, 2014, 1 a.m.

Con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees are a bit like the four houses of Hog­warts School of Witch­craft and Wiz­ardry — some are more de­sir­able to get in­to than oth­ers.

So, which com­mit­tees are more Gry­ffind­or than Slyther­in? In the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, three com­mit­tees have his­tor­ic­ally at­trac­ted the most mem­bers: Ways and Means, En­ergy and Com­merce, and Ap­pro­pri­ations. They are led, re­spect­ively, by Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Dave Camp and Fred Up­ton of Michigan, and Har­old Ro­gers of Ken­tucky.

When try­ing to suss out what makes some com­mit­tees more de­sir­able than oth­ers, there are two factors that drive all things in polit­ics: money and power. Con­sider the op­er­at­ing budgets and how much money each com­mit­tee spent on its own busi­ness in 2013 alone. The Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee, which con­trols U.S. spend­ing policy, spent $22.9 mil­lion in the 2013 fisc­al year, in­clud­ing more than $18.7 mil­lion for staff pay.

Reps. Hal Rogers, Fred Upton, and Dave Camp (L-R). National Journal

But while the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee has the most money to push around, the Com­mit­tee on Ways and Means has ar­gu­ably the most power. More bills are re­ferred to Ways and Means than any oth­er com­mit­tee. In the 112th Con­gress, nearly a third of bills were re­ferred to Ways and Means. That could ex­plain why mem­bers find it such a de­sir­able club to join — between 1995 and 2011, roughly 13 mem­bers joined the com­mit­tee for every one mem­ber who left it. (One mem­ber who will be leav­ing soon is Camp, the chair­man, who has an­nounced his re­tire­ment.)

As Stacy Kaper wrote last Oc­to­ber:

With only 39 mem­bers — smallish by con­gres­sion­al stand­ards — a seat on Ways and Means is a rar­efied as­sign­ment. Twenty-one House speak­ers, eight pres­id­ents, and four Su­preme Court justices have served on the pan­el. When new­comers want to join, they typ­ic­ally have to wait for someone on Ways and Means from their state or re­gion to re­tire, lose reelec­tion, or die.

The vague-sound­ing com­mit­tee — just what is “ways and means” sup­posed to mean? — is the old­est in Con­gress, cre­ated to deal with tax policy. That’s be­cause the Con­sti­tu­tion re­quires that all bills for rais­ing rev­en­ue shall ori­gin­ate in the House. But the com­mit­tee does much more than dis­cuss tax policy — it was in front of the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee that Kath­leen Se­beli­us test­i­fied about the failed rol­lout of the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Second to Ap­pro­pri­ations is En­ergy and Com­merce, led by Up­ton. As Amy Harder wrote last April, En­ergy and Com­merce has the broad­est jur­is­dic­tion of any com­mit­tee — “any­thing that moves, burns, or is sold.” For that reas­on, En­ergy and Com­merce comes in second only to Ways and Means in the num­ber of bills that get re­ferred to it. Since it also over­sees the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, the com­mit­tee’s hear­ings were Ground Zero for the de­bate over Obama­care. And though he may not be as fam­ous as his niece Kate, Chair­man Up­ton is known as “in­flu­en­tial, per­sist­ent, and friendly” among his col­leagues.

“Some of the most tal­en­ted and know­ledge­able mem­bers on Cap­it­ol Hill from both parties serve on En­ergy and Com­merce, and we work hard as a team to pro­duce mean­ing­ful le­gis­la­tion, con­duct rig­or­ous over­sight, and shine a light on is­sues at the fore­front of our na­tion­al de­bate,” Up­ton said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al.

An hon­or­able men­tion goes to the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, which is tasked with in­vest­ig­at­ing fraud and ab­use in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The com­mit­tee came in third in terms of its 2013 op­er­at­ing budget. And the com­mit­tee’s chair­man, Rep. Dar­rell Issa of Cali­for­nia, has garnered many in­cen­di­ary hear­ings (and even more head­lines) with his com­mit­tee’s work. Think of the IRS or Benghazi scan­dals — they wouldn’t have had nearly as much stay­ing power without Issa’s dogged pur­suit of Obama prox­ies like Eric Hold­er, Hil­lary Clin­ton, and now John Kerry.

“As has been ex­haust­ively doc­u­mented, our fed­er­al gov­ern­ment wastes bil­lions of dol­lars each year, either through mis­man­age­ment or through out­right stu­pid­ity,” Issa wrote in a joint state­ment ask­ing for more money last March. “The Over­sight Com­mit­tee is in a unique po­s­i­tion in that for every dol­lar you in­vest in us, we re­turn it one hun­dred — or per­haps one thou­sand — times over in po­ten­tial sav­ings.”

Ob­vi­ously, there are oth­er com­mit­tee chairs in the House who wield con­sid­er­able power. As chair­man of the Budget Com­mit­tee, Rep. Paul Ry­an of Wis­con­sin has shaped Re­pub­lic­ans’ spend­ing philo­sophy — even if his pro­pos­als don’t have a chance of be­com­ing law with Harry Re­id as Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er and Barack Obama as pres­id­ent. Rep. Buck McK­eon of Cali­for­nia, who leads the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, and Rep. Bob Good­latte of Vir­gin­ia, who chairs the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, have also made their pres­ence known. And Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Car­o­lina has the op­por­tun­ity to gen­er­ate a lot of press lead­ing the newly cre­ated se­lect com­mit­tee to in­vest­ig­ate the Benghazi at­tack, and thereby pick up where Issa left off. (Then, there will al­ways be the less sought-after com­mit­tees: go­ing back to our Hog­warts meta­phor, the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee may well be Huffle­puff.)

But in terms of power and de­sirab­il­ity — both real and per­ceived — these three chair­men are Con­gress’ Most Wanted.