The good, the bad, and the ugly: House committee authorizations edition

Follow the money.

The  cliche is typically employed  by investigators looking to break a case. But the saying applies to Congress, as well. In order to glean insight into Congress’ priorities, follow the money. Or more accurately, follow their funding decisions, particularly at the committee level where much of the congressional policy work takes place. More funds generally signal greater importance to the party in charge.

On March 26, observers received a glimpse into the what House Democrats will prioritize in the 116th Congress when the House Committee on Administration met in an open session and passed House Resolution 245, setting authorization levels for each of the chamber’s committees. (Note: the Appropriations Committee funding level is set in a separate stand alone measure.)

What do these committee allocations tell us about what House Democrats deem most important, and how does this differ from years past? Let’s follow the money.

1. Total authorizations down $2 million

Much to the delight of First Branch enthusiasts, Congress had been slowly but surely investing more money in its committees from 2013 through 2018. During that period, House committees were authorized just shy of $12 million more in constant 2019 dollars, a bump of 4.56% (again, keep in mind these numbers don’t include the nearly $50 million authorized to the Appropriations Committee). But, as the above figure makes clear, these modest gains were miniscule compared to the draconian 22% cuts Republicans instituted after they gained control of the chamber in the Tea Party wave of 2010. In fact, committee authorization levels in 2013 (113th Congress) were barely greater than those in 1995 (104th Congress) after adjusting for inflation. As a result of these cutbacks, House committees have been working with 1995 resource levels despite large increases in the size and complexity of the federal government, congressional districts, and a sped up economy complete with entirely new industries.

And unfortunately, the 116th authorizations reverse the trend of reinvestment experienced during the past six years and instead cut committee expenses by $2 million (0.86%) from 115th Congress levels. Though the decrease is marginal, the signal it sends is not. As many reformers have argued, the legislative branch has “suffered from a funding deficit and significant loss of institutional capacity in recent decades.” Big funding increases are needed to compete with special interests and the Executive Branch; decreases, especially in committees where much policy formation occurs, only exacerbate the capacity losses.

What’s more, many First Branchers were hopeful that House Democrats would increase committee funds  given that the House is the only elected body not under Republican control and many Democrats ran on a platform of needing a Congress capable of counteracting a president who has no qualms about legislating from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The 116th Congress authorization levels don’t scream, “Congress is ready to stand up to the Executive Branch!”

It’s important to keep in mind however, that these totals do not include monies authorized for any non-permanent select committees (more on these in a bit), and do not include any reserve funds. The House authorized a whopping $8,000,000 in reserves, which are available for “unanticipated expenses for committees.” In reality, the House Administration Committee can vote to transfer reserved funds to committees to bolster their capacity.

2. Who gained and who lost?

Examining the individual committee authorizations provides a more granular look at the House’s spending decisions and priorities. Of the 20 permanent committees funded within the bill, only five received funding boosts over their 115th levels while 15 received net cuts (again, adjusting for inflation). The House Small Business Committee saw the biggest rollbacks (4.43%) while the Budget Committee received a haircut of 3.03%.

On the plus side of the ledger, the House Ethics Committee received the biggest bump with 1.82% more funds over the 115th Congress. While some of the increased funds may go towards Democrats fulfilling a campaign promise to tackle ethics concerns such as sexual harassment within its own halls, most are likely going to be spent on an overhaul of the House Ethics Manual which sets the standards and guidelines for members. The other oversight-focused committee—the House Oversight and Reform Committee—received one of the few boosts in funds, again showing the priority of Trump-focused investigations for House Democrats.

3. A tale of two select committees

Congressional observers, particularly those carefully eyeing the prospects of reform, were paying close attention to the funding levels provided for the recently established Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Safe to say, most were disappointed in the paltry $487,500 given to the panel responsible for studying and making recommendations for how to make the chamber work better. Some even joked that the funding level was only enough to take the House out to a nice dinner rather than result in substantive changes.

The Modernization Committee’s lackluster level becomes even more stark when compared to other House select committees or congressional offices. For example, the new 116th Congress Select Committee on the Climate Crisis was authorized $3,781,500, over 7.7 times the amount granted to the Modernization panel; the 115th Congress’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives was authorized $800,000 to study the sale of fetal tissue; and the House Chaplains office was appropriated a nearly identical amount ($474,866) for the 115th Congress.

As with all funding and appropriations decisions made within the House, dollar amounts are great signals of how serious and worthy the majority, and especially its leaders, see a particular issue or cause. And unfortunately, the meager authorization for the modernization committee signals that party leaders see congressional reform as an issue they weren’t able to completely ignore, but also as one they don’t have to commit any real resources towards.

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Topics: Committees & Caucuses