House Administration Committee in Danger of a Brain Drain

The House’s housekeeper is losing its chair, and other members may be in electoral peril.

House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper
Alex Clearfield
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Alex Clearfield
Jan. 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

The House Administration Committee, one of the Hill’s most overlooked yet most critical panels, could face a serious loss of experienced members—and institutional knowledge—going into the 116th Congress.

Chairman Gregg Harper of Mississippi has already announced his retirement at the end of 2018, meaning the committee will welcome its fourth chairperson in five Congresses. The midterm elections could also portend danger for some of its top members on both sides of the aisle.

The nine-person panel is tasked with overseeing both Capitol operations and federal elections. Its low profile belies a huge day-to-day impact on the way Congress functions, from management and security of congressional offices to a new focus on preventing sexual harassment.

Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Government Affairs Institute and an expert in legislative-branch issues, said Harper has been “from the start really interested in House Administration,” spurring the committee to be more active under his leadership than in some previous Congresses. “I thought he’d spend several terms as chair.”

The midterms could complicate the process of picking a new chair. Rep. Rodney Davis, vice chairman of the committee and a former congressional aide, hails from a central Illinois district rated by The Cook Political Report as “Likely Republican.” But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting him for defeat, and he’s already drawn a number of Democratic challengers. Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, third in seniority among Republicans and also a former congressional aide, will face an extremely competitive race in her Northern Virginia swing district.

And ranking member Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, who chaired the committee from 2007 to 2011, faces a potentially competitive primary driven by a scandal over whether his campaign paid his 2012 primary opponent to drop out of the race.

The institutional knowledge of departing members could be hard to replace. Congressional Management Foundation President Brad Fitch points to Davis’s experience as district director for Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois in particular as an “irreplaceable asset.”

The chair turnover is not dissimilar to that of other committees, but since it’s a niche area and not policy-driven it can be harder to fill out a roster of members who care deeply about it. “There’s not a huge line of members lining up to serve on it,” says R Street Institute fellow Casey Burgat, a former Congressional Research Service analyst, before adding the caveat that returning members may not look to shift their committee assignments.

The second-most-senior Democrat is Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who chaired the Ethics Committee from 2009 to 2011 and is also a former congressional aide.

Former Republican Rep. Dan Lungren of California chaired the committee for one term, 2011-13, before losing reelection to Democrat Ami Bera. Lungren handed the baton to then-Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan, who chaired for two terms but retired from Congress at the end of 2016 and is now Macomb County public works commissioner.

Administration is among the five committees whose chairs are chosen by the speaker, not voted on by the majority-party caucus. A spokesperson for Davis said he “is happy to serve however the speaker sees fit” but for now is focused on the committee’s 2018 work.

Since the committee has relatively low turnover among its aides, however, it may be able to retain institutional memory through longtime staffers. “They know how to do a whole set of things that are under the radar on the Hill,” Glassman said. “Organizing the orientation for new members of Congress—that’s on CHA. … You need to have done that six, seven, 10 times in the past to pull it off.”

One other post that could change hands is that of House chief administrative officer, who Fitch calls the “city manager” in relation to the committee chair, who has been called the “mayor” of the House. The current CAO, Philip Kiko, was staff director under Lungren and was appointed by Speaker Paul Ryan in August 2016. He could be replaced should Democrats win control of the House. Fitch says “it’s important that remains a bipartisan selection.”

Federal-election oversight will likely be a consideration for the 116th Congress’s speaker in selecting a new chair.

“A lot of eyeballs are going to be on them for recommendations and policy” on topics like regulation of online political advertising, Burgat said. “No matter who the speaker is, they’ll have to have some sort of internal congressional response” to election-integrity issues.

Another issue for the committee could be the fate of the Election Assistance Commission, a small independent agency created in 2002 by the Help America Vote Act that helps states with voting systems and registration. In perhaps its biggest legislative act of 2017, the committee voted to eliminate the EAC; the measure passed on a party-line vote but has languished on the House floor. Should Democrats take the House, the agency would be granted a reprieve.

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