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The Hill was abuzz on Wednesday with news that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had “exacted revenge” on one of her most vocal detractors, Rep. Katherine Rice (D-NY). A former prosecutor and third-term member, Rice was a ringleader in the effort to block Pelosi from becoming Speaker. Rice sought — and on Tuesday was denied — a coveted seat on the House Judiciary Committee. Democrats picked up nine additional seats on the committee, which is expected to spend much of the next two years investigating President Trump.

Despite a hard press from the New York delegation, Speaker Pelosi threw her support behind several freshman members instead of Rice. Pelosi argued that New York was already well represented on the panel, with Jerry Nadler serving as chair and Hakeem Jeffries claiming a seat.

New York delegates were already miffed that Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a newly elected Democrat from New York’s 22nd district, was denied a seat on House Armed Services earlier this week. Like Rice, Brindisi was an outspoken critic of Pelosi and voted for Joe Biden for House Speaker.

As ardent House leadership watchers will recall, Pelosi promised not to retaliate against those who did not support her. In fact, she encouraged her detractors  to disparage her all they wanted if that’s what they felt they needed to do to get elected. “Do whatever you have to do. Just win, baby.”

The focus on whether Pelosi is now seeking revenge overlooks that she alone does not determine member committee assignments. The “revenge frame” also overlooks the fact that a good number of her closest allies bucked her on this vote and backed Rice, arguably the most qualified candidate for a Judiciary Committee slot.

The House Steering Committees

House Democrats and Republicans rely on party steering committees to assign members to committees. According to CRS:

“For both parties, the steering committee comprises the elected party leadership, numerous Members elected by region from the party membership, and Members appointed by the leadership. Representatives from specific classes – groups of Members elected in a specific year – are also represented. Each party Member has a representative on his or her party’s steering committee, and one role of this representative is to advance the individual Member’s choices for assignments. The steering committee for each party votes by secret ballot to arrive at individual recommendations for assignments to standing committees and forwards those recommendations to the full party conference or caucus. (Even recommendations for the House Rules and House Administration Committees’ members, which are made by the Speaker and minority leader, are confirmed by the full party conference.) Once ratified by the Republican Conference or Democratic Caucus, the recommendations are forwarded to the House, which votes on simple resolutions officially making the assignments.”

“Both parties consider a variety of factors in making assignments, including seniority, experience, background, ideology, election margin, state delegation support, leadership support, as well as the special concerns of the Member’s district. Further, the leadership often considers geographic balance in making assignments, with Members of the other party not usually counted for such purposes. None of these factors, however, is usually seen as having equal weight for each Member in each instance.”

Steering committees are leadership dominated. Leaders exercise weighted votes and determine who serves on the committees. It’s no surprise, then, that leadership allies traditionally are appointed to these committees. House Democrats have a larger steering committee than House Republicans, with approximately 50 members serving compared to 35 Republican members.

While Pelosi sits atop a steering committee stacked with allies, she is not the only vote. Several committee members reportedly spoke out in favor of Rice at Tuesday night’s meeting, directly challenging Pelosi’s recommendations. Some members even took the rare step of calling for a vote on each member vying for a seat on Judiciary. The panel instead held an up-or-down secret ballot vote on Pelosi’s slate for Judiciary and the speaker won by a margin of 27 to 21.

That’s a very close vote for a leadership dominated committee, packed with with Pelosi allies — and one that the Speaker will surely keep in mind as the committee continues to make its assignments.





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Topics: Committees & Caucuses
Marian Currinder
Marian Currinder is a permanent staffer of the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress as of December 2019. ...