Woodrow Wilson once observed: "Congress in committee is Congress at work." But what was once a keen observation is now little more than an anachronism describing a Congress that no longer exists. In theory, the committee structure is crucial to a functioning Congress. By dividing the work among specialized "mini-congresses," the committee system allows Congress to become greater than the sum of its parts. Committees allow Congress to overcome the challenges of managing a diverse and numerous body through specialization and structure. Perhaps of greater import, committees offer the promise of deliberation, moderation and compromise as a multitude of voices contribute to the crafting of legislation … in theory.
In reality, the committee system in Congress has become increasingly irrelevant, especially with regard to what might be considered major or controversial legislation. Instead, most major policy decisions are made, not through a process of deliberation, but through the concerted efforts of party leadership and often with the total exclusion of not only minority party members but most of the rank and file membership of the majority party as well.
And that's why the joint select committee on deficit reduction — or supercommittee, as it is commonly known — failed. It represented an attempt to return to a congressional approach to legislating that is foreign to most current members and party leaders, especially in the House of Representatives: lawmaking by committee.
How did the committee system die? It was actually an accidental death, caused by commendable efforts to open Congress and empower individual members. In the 1970s, a series of internal congressional reforms, beginning with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, sought to decrease the tremendous power held by committee chairs. At that time, chairmanships were determined by seniority, and the most senior members came from the safest seats. For Democrats, the majority party of the time, that meant seats held by conservative Southern Democrats. An increasingly liberal Democratic Party bristled under the agenda control those chairmen exercised.
In response, a series of institutional and party reforms were enacted to rein in committee chairs. Chairs were made subject to secret ballot approval; committee hearings were opened to the public; subcommittees were given autonomous control of agendas and resources; minority party members were given access to staff and resources.
The result of these reforms, however, was a Congress more difficult to manage. Though Southern Democrats lost control of the agenda, through committee chairmanships they could work with newly empowered and emboldened minority party Republicans to take advantage of arcane rules of debate and amendment to influence legislation.
In response, Democratic members instituted additional reforms, but rather than further empowering members, the new reforms strengthened party leadership in general and the speaker of the House specifically. The speaker was given the power to determine the majority party makeup of the House Rules Committee, a committee empowered to determine the rules of debate and amendment for nearly every piece of legislation brought to the floor. The appointment of committee members was turned over to a new committee mostly consisting of party leadership. The speaker was also given the power to refer legislation to more than one committee.
When Republicans claimed Congress in 1995 they continued the turn away from the committee system. The net effect of these changes was a severely neutered committee system. Committee chairs were increasingly little more than arms of the party leadership, and committee consideration of legislation was increasingly more a luxury than a necessity.
The Senate is a bit different. Senate majority party leadership has much less power than House leadership, but even in the Senate, committees are increasingly bypassed. Though Senate rules have long made it rather easy to go around a committee, it was once rare for committees to be bypassed. With regard to major legislation, committees were bypassed only about 7 percent of the time from the 1960s to the 1980s. In more recent years, that has risen to more than 40 percent — rivaling the House.
In both chambers, when committees are allowed to do their work, substantial postcommittee adjustment is now common. During this stage of the process, sometimes substantive changes are made to legislation after being reported by committee but before being introduced on the floor. These changes are typically made by party leadership, and opportunities for full member consideration and debate are then restricted on the floor. Indeed, fully 40 percent of major legislation has been subject to such postcommittee adjustments in the House and Senate in recent years.
Increasingly, the true work in Congress is performed not by committees with expertise on the issues considered, but rather by party leadership simply pursuing a partisan agenda. It is a system where committee members and rank-and-file members are increasingly irrelevant in every stage of legislating except the very last stage: voting. And that voting, on major and controversial measures, is typically along party lines.
So when Congress voted to create the supercommittee with equal chamber and party membership, tasked with identifying at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, it was voting for failure. In the House, and to a lesser extent the Senate, the legislative process is dominated by majority party leaders crafting legislation that will secure bare partisan majorities. In a Congress where the House is controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats, no supercommittee was going to succeed, where majority party leadership had failed, in crafting legislation amenable to opposing partisan majorities in each chamber.
Perhaps such a thing could have been accomplished in an era when committees still mattered, but that era is a distant memory.
Todd Eberly is coordinator of public policy studies and assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.