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Of Ceiling Tiles and Senate Committee Reform

Now that the G.O.P. has control of the Senate, it’s time for some commonsense changes to the committee system.

November 5, 2014

This fall, as Republicans on the campaign trail sought to recapture control of the Senate, candidates far and wide pledged to end gridlock in DC. Productivity was their mantra. Or at least it was their consultant-burnished catchphrase.

But when Senate control switches, strange things happen. Take ceiling tiles.

In early 2001, when suddenly and unexpectedly the Senate flipped to a slim one-seat Democratic majority, for a brief period it was all ceiling tiles all the time for me.

Thrust into power, what did Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee staffers (of whom I was one) immediately turn to? If you guessed the Constitution, fighting crime, expanding civil rights, or reforming immigration, you would be wrong. In fact, we spent more than a week going down a rabbit hole in an all out war with Republican staffers over office space allocation.

Hence the ceiling tiles. Turns out, ceiling tiles are an easy way to measure square footage in an office suite. One day, I came back to my office to find a bipartisan group of staffers counting ceiling tiles and studiously recording their findings.

As I stood in my office watching this meticulous effort to quantify and administer staff space allocation, one thought kept going through my mind. “You have got to be kidding me. Is this what any of us came to Washington work on?”

We can expect more nonsense like this in early 2015. For, committees, once the workhorses of the Senate and House, the nurseries for legislative functionality, now are too often partisan bear pits.

Committee work has ground largely to a halt: neither the State nor Justice Departments have been authorized in years. Oversight of the Department of Health and Human Services or the EPA is limited to ritualized hearings. Most committees are stalled processing nominees for posts in the Administration, and those nominees who do pass committee are blocked on the floor. 

To be sure many committees still do yeoman’s work. Numerous staffers are working mightily to do the right thing. But too much of today’s congressional committee activity is squirrely or has gone feral.

It is difficult to fully diagnose why the committee structure has lost its mojo. But I assert that we need it back. We need it because committees are the best way to oversee the executive branch. And when they function well, committees become fora for bipartisan consensus on critical issues.

It’s true committees can fail to flourish no matter how we structure them. And well-run committees cannot solve all our dysfunction. But let’s start here, maybe?

I’ve got some commonsense proposals for committee reform that might help. All of them are debatable, and not a one is a magic bullet. (Also, I’m limiting myself to Senate committees since the House in general is so hostile to bipartisanship that it frankly needs much, much more than committee reform).

So, with those caveats, some ideas worth debate:

  • Each committee should be required to appoint a professional, non-partisan staff plus staff director dedicated to oversight. At the beginning of each Congress, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the committee would have to sign off on that staff before any funds are dispersed to run the committee.
  • The number of majority party to minority party committee members should never differ by more than one. This has the effect of increasing minority power on the committees as the minority always has the chance to peel off one member of the majority party and thereby win a committee vote.
  • No Senator should be able to serve on more than two committees. No exceptions. No loopholes. This might allow Senators to focus on a few issues rather than hopping around from committee to committee. (I would also limit subcommittee membership).
  • Senators’ membership on committees should be term limited to ten years. Too often Senators suffer from agency or issue capture on committees. This might limit the effect.
  • Staffer pay rates and overall committee funding needs to be increased. In the last 20 years, the number of committee staffers has declined. In an era of increasing legal and information complexity, this decline is a form of governance malpractice. Moreover, their pay, while certainly generous compared with average Americans, is low compared to their earning potential and skill set. We need to retain committed, educated staffers to do the job right.

And finally, I think committees need a carrot to encourage bipartisan consensus on critical legislation. The best carrot is making sure committee legislation gets passed by the full Senate. So, I propose that any piece of legislation voted out of committee with 80 percent or more of the committee members in favor, should be expedited for passage on the floor of the Senate. A cloture vote (to stop a filibuster) should be guaranteed within four hours of the legislation being called up on the floor.  And post-cloture debate should be limited to ten hours.

This is slightly technical stuff. And I’m happy to rattle on about it in even more detail than above. The devil is in the details after all. But the general idea is that bills that come out of committee with large, bipartisan margins should have a presumption of passage. Today, given filibuster rules, they do not since even one Senator can utterly gum up the works. (This idea possibly should be applied to executive and judicial branch appointments).

With Republicans poised to take control of the Senate in 2015, they have the opportunity to change the rules for the better. I hope they do because I am so over ceiling tiles.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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(Photo: Flickr/USCapitol)