While the annual spectacle – equal parts parade and politics – know as the State of the Union address is probably the most readily available image when thinking about the United States Congress, most, if not all, of the work of that great deliberative body is completed in back room meetings, conferences, and committee hearings. In fact, even when Congress is in session, either chamber is rarely, if ever, fully collected on the House or Senate floor. Most action in Congress takes place in the various standing, select, joint, and conference committees that enable Congress to tackle such far-reaching – and important – subjects such as health care and military budgeting simultaneously. Steven Smith, et. al., writing in the text “The American Congress,” asserts that the committee system is “one of the most enduring features of Congress.”
Because it is so durable and intrinsic to the policy-making and oversight roles of Congress, an examination of the committee system, and the congressmen and Senators that comprise its ranks, provides an often unfiltered view of the complex behavioral patterns that lends itself to conclusions about the general norms that inform the Congress at large.
Committee behavior is best analyzed using the framework first established by Richard Fenno, a noted political scientist at the University of Rochester. He stated that members of Congress are driven by three legislative goals and focus on one or more based on individual style, career development, and home district needs and demographics. The three goals are reelection, policy influence, and institutional influence. New members typically focus on reelection, where as experienced members in safe districts are able to focus less on campaigning and more on substantial policy influence and influence in the institution of Congress itself.
Fenno also noted that Congressional committees reflect these three goals, and that the committee selection and committee assignment process also reflect these goals. Using video examples, it is possible to analyze the behavior of individual members of congress and whole committees, and how those two objects interact within the framework detailed by Fenno.
Just as certain members are defined by their goals, so too are committees. The primary standing committees that are typically regarded as reelection committees are the Veteran’s committee, the Agriculture committee, and the Interior committee. These committees spend of a majority of their time focusing on constituent issues and providing services and solutions to constituent problems. Reelection committees are known for their bipartisan natures; usually members are accommodating of other members interests and needs, and most members agree on an overarching goal for the committee. These committees are also allocative, distributing federal money to home districts.
In the example below, filmed during an Agriculture committee hearing on April 27, 2006, congressmen hear testimony on the causes of high gasoline prices as well as the (then) state of futures market regulation. What follows is an example of the bipartisan nature of reelection campaigns and the primary focus of these committees: constituent welfare.
In this clip Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, the ranking member of the minority on the Agriculture committee, addresses both the committee and the hearing’s witnesses politely and concisely, speaking on the goals of the with regard to farmer prosperity and futures regulations. He addresses the oversight nature of that hearing, highlighting one of the primary roles of a standing committee. Because this is a reelection committee, his comments regarding his constituents are not surprising: he emphasizes Minnesota’s position as a leader in farmer-owned ethanol interests, and expresses concern for the rest of the members’ constituencies. He also alludes to the Agriculture committee’s hand in the creation of the 2006 farm bill, and conveys his hope that through that legislation the committee can help protect farmers who invest in ethanol from private equity. This is a classic example of congressman with reelection goals using a reelection committee to cater to his constituents – in this case mostly farmers – in order to solidify his standing in his district. Also, this example illustrates that reelection committees are usually bipartisan; the non-partisan goal of protecting farmers from high gasoline prices is mutually agreed upon by members irrespective of party.
After members of Congress establish themselves as experienced incumbents, they are free to explore the policy-making process in committees. The primary policy committees are Armed Services, Education and Labor, and Foreign Affairs. These committees focus on nation-wide policy questions and deal relatively little with securing funding or favors for their home districts. Typically, policy committees are partisan in nature and members clash along ideological lines. Members can assert themselves on a national stage, and party politics plays an important role during hearings and mark-up sessions.
The video clip below was filmed during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services committee on the proposed review and possible modification of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy regarding the open service of homosexuals. The February 2, 2010 hearing heard testimony from prominent military personnel such as Secy. of Defense Robert Gates. Tense interactions are sharp disagreement provide insight into typical policy committee conflict.
Early on we see the committee chairman, Sen. Levin, and the ranking member, Sen. McCain, clash over a question of speaking times and the day’s schedule; whereas the reelection committee members cooperated in the previous clip, the policy committee’s members enter into debates that can be both consequential and trifling.
Sen. Levin then questions Secy. Gates, and his questions clearly reflect his personal opinions on the DADT issue and are meant to both garner support from the executive branch of government for the Democratic position as well as learn from Gates possible outcomes of repealing the law. Sen. McCain, however, gruffly rebukes the two witnesses for failing to appropriately show deference to Congressional authority on the issue and for what seemed as an endorsement for changes to the law, which Republicans oppose.
The clip illustrates the partisan and ideological conflict of policy committees. Because issues that come before these committees are contentious on a personal as well as national level, party conflict can – and does, as evidenced by the video example – devolve into personal squabbling and political maneuvering. Hearings also provide members the ability to express their viewpoints on a wider audience; as experienced, relatively safe members, they can articulate positions on national issues that may even be unpopular in their own constituencies without serious ramifications. The policy-making process, dominated by parties and rarely and increasingly polarized, is the territory of policy specialists and party loyalists who have moved past the freshman phase of focusing on reelection.
Often legislators’ goals shift to holding influence in the institution of Congress itself. These members have either less interest in, or have progressed from, using their positions to draft policy or aid their home districts. The most common way to hold institutional influence, other than to be elected as the Speaker of the House, is to be appointed to an institutional committee. These committees, in the House, are the Ways and Means committees, the Appropriations committee, and the Rules committee. These committees have a degree of partisanship that reflects the goals of the party, such as the Rules committee making it harder for the opposition to submit amendments to a controversial bill. However in the case of the Appropriations committee, a primarily distributive committee, there is less partisanship for obvious reasons: each member wants to get his pet projects funded and claim a share of the federal pie, and this is most easily accomplished by refraining from opposing other members projects and allowing a logrolling process to unfold undisturbed.
The following clip was filmed during an Appropriations committee meeting on January 21, 2009. The meeting was meant to open the legislative year, introduce new members, and start the mark-up process for a new economic recovery package. Aside from the polite introductions, this clip shows the nature of institutional committees to be less tense and partisan than policy committees but also less inward-looking than reelection committees.
The Appropriations committee chairman, Rep. Obey from Wisconsin, begins the meeting by thanking the Democratic Caucus for “bending its own rules” in order to accommodate Republican members on subcommittees, even though this accommodation would be in violation of the caucus’s ratio standards. This accommodation of the minority shows the lack of partisanship in institutional committees and allows for an atmosphere in which the legislative process, while earmark-laden, is free from political posturing. This incident also sheds light on the committee appointment process by illustrating that caucus and conference rules for appointment can be bent or ignored when needed.
When the ranking member of the minority, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, is recognized, he immediately addresses those assembled with references to the traditions of the Appropriations committee. He expresses his hope that the committee will be “as non-partisan as possible,” and that he will try to usher in a return “to the traditions of our committee of almost total bipartisanship.” This address quite clearly demonstrates the commitment of the Appropriations committee, and the other institutional committees, to focus more on the business of the Congress as an institution than to simply play as groups of party pawns or collections of continual campaigners. Excessive partisanship and electioneering would limit a member’s ability to grow in stature and power within the institution.
The goals of individual congressmen, while varied and ever-changing, can classified under the three prototype goals of Fenno. Naturally, as committees are comprised of members, they are also comprised of members’ goals, and reflect an amalgamation of those goals. A congressman’s behavior within a committee setting is informed by his or her own goals, and as a result committees can also be classified according to Fenno’s system.
The reelection committees (Veterans, Agriculture, Interior) help congressmen stay connected to their home districts while providing services and solutions unique to those districts. Policy committees (Education and Labor, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs) are where the legislative conflicts in Congress are fought. Strong party and ideological differences dictate the behavior of more experience congressmen who hope to shape national policy. Institutional influence committees (Ways and Means, Appropriations, Rules) help congressmen attain power on Capitol Hill. In these committees members can direct federal money to various projects as well as set the agenda on the House floor, shaping the debate on numerous bills.
And while the State of the Union address may receive the most media attention, the happenings within committee mark-up meetings and oversight hearings are what keep Congress employed; the work of committees, often referred to as “little legislatures,” ensures that our tax code is fair, that farmers receive subsidies, that our military is equipped properly, that our nation is both represented and improving.
Fenno, Richard. Homestyle: House Members in Their Districts. Pearson Longman Publishing. New York, NY. 2002.
Smith, Steven, et. al. The American Congress. Cambridge University Press. New York, NY. 2009.
NOTE: Video clips may exceed recommended length. This was done to ensure the informational value of the clips, which would have necessarily been sacrificed if videos were truncated further than their present form. Each clip presents multiple concepts, some of which would have been lost with shorter, or less revealing, video examples.