Committee Reform

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Ezra Klein says we should get rid of the Agriculture Commitees in the House and Senate. Which we probably should. But it really is worth emphasizing that the committee structure as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. The standing committees work well enough for the basic oversight functions, but as a way of getting legislation written it’s mostly a means of introducing additional veto points and giving special interests disproportionate influence over the process. The case for the committees is that having a group of members who specialize in a given issue could produce better legislation. The fact of the matter, however, is that while congress acting as a check on the executive is important in our system, it’s generally not all that desirable for congress to be actively shaping the details of public policy. The Obama administration has sound tactical reasons for leaving the details of energy and health policy up to congress, but you don’t actually get superior policy this way—among other things, congressional staff don’t have the same level of technical expertise available to the administration.

Traditionally, progressives have understood themselves to have an interest in strengthening the hand of the congressional leadership relative to senior committee members. I think my practical suggestion would be that for major legislative priorities it would make sense to have the leadership appoint special ad hoc select committees, rather than having multiple drafts of a bill circulate (as we’re seeing in the Senate with health care) or have a given bill go through multiple committees (as we’re seeing in the House with climate change). The model would look a bit like the “tri-Committee” process the House is using for health care, but you’d try to keep the membership roster down to a normal size. The idea would be that if you were going to propose a major overhaul of, say, agriculture policy you wouldn’t just leave the henhouse in the hands of the foxes. Instead you’d appoint a special “let’s overhaul agriculture policy” committee with a view to selecting a membership likely to write a bill that’s both good and likely to pass. That would mean some representation for farm interests, of course, but also representation of other kinds of interests.