Fundraising requirements should not be a part of the chair/committee assignment process
Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, LegBranch will be posting a series of reform proposal memos by congressional scholars. These proposals will take up a range of topics, including congressional staffing, committee and procedural reforms, technology, and capacity issues. The proposal memos will be housed on our Select Committee webpage.
To: The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress
From: Marian Currinder, Senior Fellow, R Street Institute
Reform: Remove fundraising requirements from chair/committee assignment processes
The Rules of the House of Representatives establish the process by which committee chairs are selected. Specifically, Rule X, clause 5(c) states:
One of the members of each standing committee shall be elected by the House, on the nomination of the majority party caucus or conference, as chair thereof. In the absence of the member serving as chair, the member next in rank (and so on, as often as the case shall happen) shall act as chair. Rank shall be determined by the order members are named in resolutions electing them to the committee. In the case of a vacancy in the elected chair of a committee, the House shall elect another chair.
The party steering committees select committee chairs and also determine member committee assignments. While steering committee members are geographically and experientially diverse, the committees are dominated by party leaders who exercise weighted votes. House Republicans make their list of steering committee members public; House Democrats do not make their current list public, but other documents provide a sense of their committee’s size and makeup.
When choosing committee chairs, House Democrats have tended to award seniority while House Republicans consider a variety of factors. In addition to seniority, Republicans weigh subject-matter expertise, loyalty to party leaders, and fundraising prowess. Both parties expect their chairs (and aspiring chairs) to raise substantial amounts of money for the House party committees – either the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
Various studies and reports demonstrate that members take these expectations seriously. For example, Kevin Brady (R-CA), former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, raised over $1.8 million for the NRCC during the 115th Congress. And Patrick McHenry (R-NC), former chair of the House Financial Services Committee, raised $1.6 million for the NRCC. Three House Democrats now serving as committee chairs raised over $500,000 each for the DCCC during the 115th Congress.
Over the past 20 years or so, a member’s ability and willingness to raise money for the party has become a dominant factor in chairmanship races. In recent years, members of both parties have spoken candidly about party fundraising expectations and complained about having to “pay for the privilege” of serving as chair. Many members who voluntarily retired at the end of the 115th Congress cited fundraising pressures, along with the centralization of power, as reasons for leaving.
Members also complain about the best committee assignments going to the members who raise the most money. Both parties assess “party dues” on their members and the more prestigious a member’s committee assignment, the more money they’re required to raise for the party.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), testifying at the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress’s recent Member’s Day Hearing, spoke candidly about the House’s “pay to play” system:
“Too often, Members arrive in Washington expecting to make a difference, but quickly lose faith after realizing that their ability to make a difference is tied to their fundraising prowess. Republicans and Democrats alike are required to raise a certain amount for their respective Party Campaign Committees before the Steering Committee will even consider granting a Member’s preferred committee assignments. Chairmanships and “A” Committees require an even greater dedication to fundraising for the party. This should not be the way we do business. Our constituents didn’t elect us to raise money, they elected us to solve problems. This practice must stop.”
While committee chairmanships and assignments are decided by the parties, they are approved by a vote of the House. It is unclear whether the House can adopt rules that set restrictions on party caucus procedures, but the House can set rules on how the chamber determines committee chairs and assignments. By this logic, the House could adopt a rule stating that party dues cannot be taken into account when determining chairs and assignments. Party dues would not be prohibited or restricted under such a rule; members could continue to raise money for their parties, but their efforts would not be considered as part of their chairmanship and committee assignment bids.
The parties could also adopt internal rules allowing committees to select their own chairs. In this scenario, committee members, rather than the steering committees, would be empowered to choose their own leaders based on whatever factors matter most to a majority of the committee’s members. Such an approach might help bolster committee and member autonomy vis-à-vis party leaders.
Another approach is to expand or institute new ethics rules. In his testimony before the Select Committee, Rep. Buck (R-CO) said that he had sent a letter to the House Committee on Ethics requesting that the practice of tying fundraising requirements to chairmanships and member committee assignments be deemed unethical. If the committee were to adopt such a rule, a member could file a complaint with the committee if he or she believed the rule had been violated, potentially triggering an investigation.
If nothing else, parties should be encouraged to adopt a merit-based system for awarding chairmanships and committee assignments. Factors such as experience, policy expertise, professional reputation, and party loyalty should be emphasized over the ability to meet fundraising quotas. The parties could also substantially lower – and make public – their party dues requirements to allow members more time to focus on their legislative and representational responsibilities.
Thank you for your consideration. I’d be happy to answer any questions committee members or staff may have. You may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.