The Hill’s Committee Disaster

(Architect of the Capitol)

(Architect of the Capitol)

Barack Obama is trying to kill the F-22. The relevant congressional committees, by contrast, are trying to keep the F-22 alive, and they’re doing it by shifting money out of nuclear waste cleanup. Now the Obama administration is threatening to veto the authorizing bill unless Congress obeys the request of his administration (and the Defense Department and analysts everywhere) to kill the damn thing. Stan Collender hails this move and rightly so.

But it’s also an illustration of America’s desperately dysfunctional institutional structure. One basic problem of democratic governance relates to concentrated interests versus diffuse ones. Organizing broad groups of people to advance the public interest in the face of entrenched opposition is difficult. And the committee structure is like it was designed to make this problem as bad as possible. The upshot of the way congress does business is that agriculture policy is made by a special minority of legislators who represent the interests of agricultural producers. And energy policy is made by legislators who represent the interests of energy producers. And defense policy is made by legislators who represent the interests of defense contractors. If you just announced an unexpected swap and had the Armed Services Committee set farm policy and the Agriculture Committee do procurement, you could get better results.

It used to be that institutional reform was an important priority for progressives and in the 1970s they managed to make some progress on curbing the authority of committee chairman. I think it would be smart to continue to put emphasis on that kind of thing—encouraging policy to be set by broad national governing coalitions rather than idiosyncratic committees that are easily captured by interest groups.