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By Jay Cost

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Hill Democrats Demand Committee Power Back

The Hill reports this morning that Democratic backbenchers are now demanding the House committees get their power back.

A group of more than 50 House Democrats has penned a letter to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) imploring him to "restore this institution" and see that the House returns to a "regular order" process of legislating.

The letter, signed by a large number of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and the centrist New Democratic Coalition, has not yet been sent. Members are still gathering signatures in an effort to send the strongest signal possible to all top House Democrats that the caucus is up in arms over the top-down method of legislating employed by Democrats since late last year. [...]

Since last year, many senior House Democrats -- many of them subcommittee chairmen -- have grown overly frustrated with how only small and select bands of legislators have been responsible for writing bills, such as the $700 billion Wall Street bailout as well as much of the $819 billion economic stimulus bill.

Democratic leaders have acknowledged that the "regular order" process of methodically developing and writing bills in subcommittees and committees has been abandoned recently. But they have defended the handling of such sensitive and important legislation by only an exclusive group of leadership and senior lawmakers as a necessary tactic during exceptional times. [...]

Now at least 50 Democrats are calling the Speaker's hand.

"Committees must function thoroughly and inclusively, and cooperation must ensue between the parties and the houses to ensure that our legislative tactics enable rather than impede progress," the members wrote. "In general, we must engender an atmosphere that allows partisan games to cease and collaboration to succeed."

The House has not always had a strong committee system. "Uncle" Joe Cannon, for instance, was Speaker of the House from 1903 until 1911. He ruled with an iron fist, using the power of appointment to dominate the committees. Finally a group of insurgent Republicans, along with Democrats, revolted in 1911, stripped the Speaker of his power, and distributed it to the committees.

Committee power has ebbed and flowed over the years, but note the mentioning of subcommittee chairmen in the Hill writeup. Subcommittees have become increasingly important in the House as a way for members to develop policy expertise as well niche power bases. These days, if you chair a House subcommittee, your legislative domain is relatively small - but within that domain you typically have a great deal of power. [Actually, a great example of this power can be seen in Charlie Wilson's War.] Contrast this situation to the Senate, where fewer senators (but a policy domain as large as the House) means that senators must be generalists.

By legislating without the committees, Pelosi is upsetting the apple cart - and their response is a great reminder that, in this country, it is not partisanship above all else. The parties serve as a centripetal force in our system, centralizing power as our Constitution disperses it. However, partisanship in the government has its limits. Democratic and Republicans members of Congress are interested in protecting their own personal power because, ultimately, they stand for reelection as individuals. These backbenchers (and note that ideologically, they seem to be to the right of Pelosi) want their power bases back, and apparently are willing to embarrass (just slightly!) their Speaker by making a public demand.

-Jay Cost