Which House committees are the most partisan?

Congressional scholars have long suggested that some committees in the House of Representatives are more partisan than others as a natural consequence of the types of issues different committees deal with. It is clear that the Rules Committee, for example, is far more partisan than Veterans’ Affairs.

But setting aside these ostensibly extreme examples, the extent —and relative extent— of a committee’s partisanship is less than obvious. Is, say, the House Judiciary Committee especially partisan? And is it more partisan than the Small Business Committee?

My ongoing research explores these questions, and examines whether the type of district a member represents relates to the type of committee they serve on.

I have collected data on roll call votes taken within House standing committees between the 104th and 114th Congresses and developed three measures of committee partisanship. The first measure is the percentage of all votes taken within a committee which I call “high” party line votes, where more than 90% of one party votes against more than 90% of the other party.

I also examine the percentage of “low” party line votes in which more than 50% of one party votes against more than 50% of the other party.

Finally, I measure the average percentage of majority party members voting “yea” on a roll call minus the average percentage of minority party members voting ‘’yea”. For example, if a committee took ten roll call votes and on each vote, 100% of both majority and minority party members voted “yea”, the difference between the two would be zero, indicating a very bipartisan committee. Alternatively, if 100% of majority party members vote “yea” on all the votes and zero minority party members do, the difference between the two is 100, indicating a very partisan committee.

Using these three measures, I rank ordered all standing committees and find that there are substantial differences in levels of committee partisanship, largely along the lines congressional observers would expect. Perhaps to the surprise of some Congress-watchers, the analysis finds the House Administration to be the most partisan committee. It has the highest percentage of high party line votes, the second highest percentage of low party line votes, and the highest average difference between the two parties. The Rules Committee, no surprise, is second, while the Veterans’ Affairs and Agriculture Committees are the two least partisan.

Given these significant differences, I next ask whether certain types of members seek out different types of committees. Existing theories of representation suggest that Representatives reflect the preferences of their district, so members from highly ideological or partisan districts should prefer more partisan committees, while members from moderate or cross-pressured districts will prefer bipartisan committees. Committee service might offer members the ability to signal their partisan preferences to their constituents; a member from a very liberal or conservative district might seek membership on a committee like Rules to demonstrate that they are strongly opposed to the other party. On the other hand, a member from a moderate district might choose committee service that allows them to burnish their bipartisan credentials, demonstrating to their constituents that they are trying to reach across the aisle.

The initial results from my research demonstrate that this is largely accurate: members from more extreme districts are more likely to serve on partisan committees. The results apply to both Republicans and Democrats, meaning that strong liberals and conservatives, from safe or ideologically extreme districts, are likely to seek out the most partisan committees. The opposite is true as well. Members from moderate districts seek out bipartisan committees. Conor Lamb, for example, who represents Pennsylvania’s 17th, rated as R+3 by the Cook Political Report, sought a seat on Veterans’ Affairs, one of the most bipartisan committees as a way to demonstrate that he is not an extremist.

Not every member receives their preferred committee assignments, especially if the committee is highly sought after. My research also shows that members are more likely to switch committees if they are mismatched in their current committee. That is, members who represent extreme districts who end up on a bipartisan committee (and vice versa) are more likely to move to a better matched committee at the start of a new congressional term. This is especially true if the member comes from a competitive district, indicating that these Representatives cannot afford to convey the wrong partisan signal to their constituents.

While these findings may seem intuitive, the primary theoretical explanation among congressional scholars as to why members choose some committees over others is that their preferred committees allow them to direct federal policy and spending in a way that benefits their district, thereby helping their reelection chances. For example, Representatives with farming interests want to serve on the Agriculture Committee. This theory, commonly called distributive theory, has a few shortcomings however. First, some committees that are seen as valuable by members, such as Foreign Affairs, are not distributive in nature, meaning it isn’t clear how serving on Foreign Affairs helps a member’s reelection case. Second, distributive theory offers an appealing explanation of why Congress has organized itself into committees. But if distributing goods to districts through committees is the primary purpose of committee service, why has Congress created so many non-distributive committees?

My research proposes another explanation. The jurisdictions of some committees are just more partisan and divisive than others, and the partisan variation between committees allows members to choose whether they want to be a partisan warrior or bridge-builder through their committee service. To be clear, distributing benefits through committees to districts is still important, and members might prefer service on a committee that both offers the opportunity to direct federal spending to their district and serve their partisan interests. But, I suggest that the distribution of spending may not be the only explanation of committee selection by Representatives. In today’s polarized Congress, partisan signaling through committee service is an important component of a member’s reelection strategy.

Filed Under:
Topics: Committees & Caucuses