If Congress is serious about reform -- cutting spending, staff, and the undergrowth of overlapping committees -- there is no better place to start than by eliminating "select committees." Organized around hot-button issues, these panels have large budgets and staff, but lack authority to pass legislation to solve the problems they examine. Tomorrow the House is scheduled to consider H. Res. 52, which would provide funding for the four existing House select committees to operate for an additional year. Last Tuesday, January 26, the House on a 237-180 vote defeated a resolution to reauthorize one of the select committees (on narcotics) for two years. Startled House leaders pulled resolutions on the other three committee from the House schedule. H. Res. 52 is a compromise proposal designed to keep the select committees alive until the Joint Committee on the Organization of the Congress reports broader reform proposals. But the reform study should not be used as an excuse to delay needed reforms, and there are convincing arguments to abolish the select committees now.
Eliminating select committees will advance the important reform objectives of emphasizing the legislative mission of Congress, cutting staff, eliminating overlapping committees, reducing spending, curbing special interest influence, and limiting incumbents' electoral advantages. These goals are elements of The Heritage Foundation's congressional reform program, and are included in many other reform proposals.
Focusing Congress on Legislating. Traditionally, select committees are formed for a limited time and a specific purpose: panels to investigate Iran-Contra and October Surprise allegations and the joint reform committee are recent examples. In the mid-1970s, however, the House began creating bodies with vague mandates to look into broader social problems, resulting in the existing four select committees on Aging, Narcotics, Hunger, and Children, Youth and Families. Rather than forming definite plans for action in these areas, the committees have sought renewed authority every other year (the House can only authorize the committees for the two-year length of a Congress) for as long as eighteen years now. Because select committees cannot consider legislation they cannot, by definition, take steps to address the problems they investigate. The lack of real purpose has caused the committees to drift beyond their mandates, with the Aging Committee, for instance, involving itself in health care for all ages, the environment, and even programs for farm workers.
Getting Congress to concentrate on its central, legislative mission is the key to effective reform. Eliminating select committees would remove a needless distraction and encourage Congress to focus its energies on legislative solutions to pressing problems.
Reducing the Budget and Staff. There is a broad consensus on the need to reduce congressional spending and staff. President Clinton has called for a 25 percent staff cut. The select committees employ 91 staffers; their combined budgets total $3.65 million. Eliminating select committees would trim House committee staffs by 4.5 percent. This represents a useful first step toward President Clinton's 25 percent target, and would allow the House to concentrate staff in more important areas, even as it reduces overall numbers.
Eliminating Overlapping Committees. Reformers agree that Congress has too many committees, often with overlapping responsibilities. Multiple assignments make it difficult for Members of Congress to attend properly to committee business, and jurisdictional conflicts make passing legislation difficult. The select committees themselves attempt to justify their existence by citing the large numbers of regular (standing) committees that have responsibility in their area of concern: eight of 22 standing House committees in the case of the Hunger panel. But addressing overlapping committee jurisdictions by creating yet another committee is like trying to cure a hangover with Scotch. If committees are not organized appropriately to address major national problems, overall committee jurisdictions should be reformed. The select committees have a total of 172 members, so their elimination would be a major step forward in reducing scheduling conflicts and dissipation of Member and staff efforts.
The Joint Committee on the Organization of the Congress is examining the committee structure in hopes of reducing the number of committees and subcommittees and rationalizing jurisdictional divisions. Eliminating select committees now would aid the reform process by removing one issue from the joint committee's overburdened platter. Reauthorizing the select committees for a year in hopes of a reprieve would send a very damaging signal that Congress intends to use the joint committee to construct a facade of reform while attempting to continue business as usual.
Curbing Electioneering and Special Interests. Because the select committees have no authority to consider legislation or otherwise change programs or policies, they have become publicity and lobbying organizations, often allied with special interest groups which benefit from the programs the committees push. A large budget item for most select committees is for "field hearings." Even more than most congressional hearings, these travelling shows are more about publicity than about legislation. Members of the committees visit sites outside of Washington supposedly to hear from ordinary citizens. But the real objective is for constituents to hear from their Congressman: almost all field hearings are in districts represented by members of the select committee. The shows dominate local media while they are in town. So appealing is this posturing that the select committees have swollen to become among the largest in Congress. The Aging Committee, with 69 members, is larger by far than any of the House's standing committees. But since the committees cannot approve legislation, they are guaranteed to do nothing about the citizens' concerns. As such, they represent, at best, hollow expressions of concern and can be of no real assistance to those in need.
Reform Now. The House has an opportunity tomorrow to demonstrate a commitment to real congressional reform. The House should follow through on its decision last week to eliminate the Narcotics Committee by voting this week to eliminate all four select committees. Allowing the congressional leadership to keep these panels alive for another year by approving H. Res. 52 would represent a big step backward for congressional reform.
David M. Mason, Director, U.S. Congress Assessment Project.