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To Turn Election Wins Into Policy, House Progressives Need More Committee Power

Progressive policies face a committee structure that distorts democracy and favors corporate-backed centrists.

Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., conduct a news conference on July 15, 2019.Getty Images

This research and analysis is part of our Discourse series, a collaboration between The Appeal and The Justice Collaborative Institute. Its mission is to provide expert commentary and rigorous, pragmatic research especially for public officials, reporters, advocates, and scholars. The Appeal and The Justice Collaborative Institute are editorially independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.

Members of the House of Representatives may each get one vote on legislation, but that doesn’t make their influence on policy equal. The real work of lawmaking in Congress happens not on chamber floors, but in committee rooms. The 20 permanent committees in the House are responsible for crafting bills, overseeing executive agencies, and conducting investigations. Collectively, these groups are the lifeblood of Congress. As a result, committee chairs hold extraordinary power to set policy agendas, and often what blocks a particular policy is not public opinion, but rather who wields the committee gavel. 

This power is further concentrated in the so-called money committees, which have broad jurisdiction over federal taxing and spending: Ways and Means, Financial Services, Energy and Commerce, and Appropriations. Almost any major policy initiative—from affordable healthcare and clean energy investments, to regulating Wall Street and education spending—has to clear one or more of these committees, giving their members critical, outsize influence over lawmaking. 

But if most Americans are in the dark about Congress’s committee structure, corporate special interests have night vision. Each year, representatives on the money committees attract campaign donations from every major industry in the United States. A pharmaceutical lobbyist knows exactly which committee members hold the keys to allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices—something nearly 90 percent of the public supports—and big oil lobbyists know which committee members can cut investments in alternative energy. It’s a dynamic that establishment Democrats have exploited. Like suites in a Manhattan high-rise, the gavels to the top committees are reserved for an exclusive few—the most senior and loyal members of the party—in part because of their potential to influence fundraising. 

The result is a power structure stacked against young progressive members, the very individuals whose surging popularity helped Democrats take control of the House in 2018. These members are more likely to refuse corporate money and less likely to toe the Democratic party line. Members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, known as “The Squad,” were elected on bold, popular ideas like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal—and their ranks are growing

This year, middle school principal Jamaal Bowman unseated 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel to represent New York’s 16th Congressional District. Nurse and activist Cori Bush ousted a 50-year St. Louis political dynasty to become Missouri’s first Black woman elected to Congress. Visionary leaders like Marie Newman (Illinois’s Third Congressional District), Mondaire Jones (New York’s 17th Congressional District), and Ritchie Torres (New York’s 15th Congressional District) ignored dated notions of “waiting your turn” and instead ran and won while pushing transformative generational change. More than breaking individual barriers, their pursuit of racial, economic, and environmental justice—funded by people, not corporations—is broadly supported by voters. 

A well-functioning democracy captures the public’s preferences in policy, yet champions of some of the country’s most popular ideas are underrepresented on the committees with the institutional muscle to push these through. For transformative change to take root in Washington, grassroots, working class, and marginalized communities subject to disinvestment must be represented on the A-list money committees. As Pressley reminded us two years ago, “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

Committee assignments work against progressives

In the House, party leadership and seniority drive committee assignments. The roughly 50-member Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and operating under secret rules, compiles lists and votes on committee assignments. Every committee ranks members by seniority, and by custom, committee chairs are reserved for the more senior members. The money committees are “exclusive,” which means members cannot serve on other committees without a rare waiver from leadership. But no matter the other relevant criteria—such as a member’s policy expertise or geographic parity—leadership always has the final say. 

When it comes to the powerful money committees, the caucus’s campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), also plays a role through member dues and fundraising targets set by leadership. House members gain political capital by raising funds for their colleagues, especially frontline members considered vulnerable in competitive districts. Party leadership and the chairpersons of money committees typically pay a higher price for their elevated status. According to a September 2019 report in The Intercept, party dues for 2020 started at $150,000 and topped off at $1 million for Pelosi. The majority whip, Jim Clyburn, had a dues target of $800,000. Richard Neal, chairperson of Ways and Means, was expected to contribute $600,000 in dues, and, like his fellow money committee leaders, had an additional $1.2 million fundraising target for his gavel. Even freshman members who serve on money committees pay higher dues, despite their low seniority.

Meeting fundraising targets keeps members in the good graces of leadership, helping with future committee assignments and garnering more favorable treatment for legislation they propose. This poses a challenge to progressives who refuse corporate contributions in order to pursue a people-driven agenda. Ocasio-Cortez announced in January that she would not be paying dues, opting instead to fundraise directly for her colleagues. Her stated reason was the DCCC’s refusal to hire any vendors who worked with progressive challengers on primary campaigns against incumbent Democrats—such as those who supported her campaign. 

Money committees in the 116th Congress

The structural disadvantages for progressives are illustrated by the current Congress. 

After the “Blue Wave” of 2018, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), looking to turn its growing membership into political power, secured certain concessions from Pelosi. The caucus would support her bid for the speakership in exchange for representation on the four money committees (plus the Intelligence Committee) in proportion to their share of the whole Democratic caucus (around 40 percent). While that number was more or less achieved, it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

First, CPC membership hasn’t always been an accurate proxy for bold progressive policies. Despite its stated mission of “standing up for progressive ideals,” the bloc doesn’t limit its membership through rigorous policy standards. For example, many CPC members on money committees are also members of the New Democrat coalition—a more moderate caucus that was formed in part to oppose the party’s more progressive wing, especially on financial regulation and taxation. Additionally, only 20 of the CPC’s 96 members have formally pledged to reject corporate PAC money.

This allowed Pelosi to honor the letter of the CPC agreement while tempering its effect. At the start of the 116th Congress, Pelosi named 26 new members to the money committees, including 13 CPC members. But five of those members—Lisa Blunt Rochester, Brenda Lawrence, Don Beyer, Darren Soto, and Brendan Boyle—were also members of the business-friendly New Democrats and had joined the CPC only recently. According to The Intercept, Blunt Rochester was one of only two CPC members to vote for S. 2155, the 2018 law proposed by Senate Republicans that weakened Dodd-Frank banking regulations. Soto was one of nine Democrats who threatened to oppose Pelosi’s speaker bid unless she approved rule changes to give Republicans more legislative power. When the dust settled, progressives saw more favorable math but the same familiar power gap relative to the party’s more centrist factions.  

The jockeying for Ways and Means was particularly intense, as progressives Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal, and Ro Khanna all sought a seat but were eventually denied. Although only a freshman, Ocasio-Cortez had a strong regional claim to the committee, having unseated the New York City member who previously sat on it. But Pelosi opted instead for Tom Suozzi, a New Democrat and self-described fiscal conservative who represents a far wealthier district and is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a billionaire-funded coalition of Democrats and Republicans. 

Jayapal, a former immigration activist, asked for, but was refused, a waiver to join Ways and Means while continuing to serve on the Judiciary Committee. Likewise, Khanna wanted to retain his seat on the Armed Services Committee, where he has advocated for things like ending U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. For both members, the “exclusive” rule, intended to spread out fundraising ability, blocked their path to a money committee. 

Progressive power is also kept at bay through the careful selection of key committee chairpersons. Consider a leading progressive priority like Medicare for All, which has exploded in popularity. According to an October poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, eight in 10 Democrats and a majority of independents support Medicare for All; as of this writing, a majority of Democratic House members have co-sponsored House Resolution 1384—the Medicare for All Act. But that popularity gets diluted in the key committees with the power to advance healthcare reform.

Single-payer healthcare would require a major overhaul of the country’s tax code, which is written by the Ways and Means Committee. Of the committee’s 25 Democratic members, nearly half are co-sponsors of HR 1384. While that may seem like a critical mass, the only real number that matters is one. More often than not, the committee chairperson decides which proposals live and which never see the light of day. And Ways and Means Chairperson Richard Neal not only opposes Medicare for All, but also didn’t want the phrase mentioned in a 2019 hearing tactfully named “Pathways to Universal Coverage.” The American Hospital Association, one of the leading groups opposing single-payer healthcare, spent over $200,000 in digital advertising on Neal’s latest re-election bid, and he took in more corporate campaign money in 2019—over $1.4 million—than any member of Congress. 

But there’s an even simpler reason someone like Neal leads Ways and Means: Pelosi, as she put it last year, is “not a big fan” of Medicare for All. And Democratic leadership is disciplined about designating the gavels of money committees in a way that dampens progressive priorities, viewing them as electoral and fundraising liabilities for the caucus’s more centrist, “frontline” members.

A more democratic House

Congress doesn’t have to work this way. Right now, committee selection prioritizes party careerism and fundraising concerns over the real solutions people need. Progressives who do the painstaking work of democracy—by organizing at the grassroots level—gain the legitimacy that can only be conferred by popular will. That grassroots support ought to be the real political capital that determines committee membership and leadership. Instead, progressives are subject to an undemocratic process that views that support with suspicion. 

To steer back toward democratic accountability, the House could immediately adopt new rules that deem it unethical to choose committee leaders and members based on fundraising prowess, as was proposed last year by Marian Currinder, a professional staff member on the Committee on the Modernization of Congress. This would help ensure that policy expertise, willingness to serve, and respect among one’s peers predominate as criteria for leadership. 

But fundraising targets are only one component of a fundamentally undemocratic process. Because House leadership serves as chairperson of the Steering and Policy Committee, and carefully selects many of its members, committee selection too often reflects that person’s preferences. Instead of concentrating power in the hands of leadership, committee members themselves could choose their chairpersons, as Currinder argues, based on the credentials most relevant to that committee’s jurisdiction. Or the entire caucus could vote on committee leaders without the Steering Committee filtering nominees, and without the secret ballots that currently shroud the process. 

Finally, the House might consider instituting term limits of 10 years for all committee leaders. Committee term limits already exist in some form. Democratic members of the Ethics committee, for example, can serve in a maximum of three out of five Congresses, whereas the Committee on Intelligence limits membership to four Congresses, according to the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center. The exercise of term limits could ensure a healthy circulation of perspectives within the caucus—and Congress as a body—so that opportunities for leadership are available to members of all backgrounds and seniority levels. 

Progressives are leaning into their transformative potential ahead of committee selection for the next Congress. Last month, the CPC approved new rules that will more closely align the caucus with policy goals, requiring members to vote as a bloc most of the time and sponsor a certain amount of progressive legislation. As Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, co-founders of the advocacy group Indivisible, argue in a recent commentary, the pledge to vote as a bloc means that progressives will need to be taken seriously early in the legislative process, when key discussions and amendments can either strengthen popular policies or dilute them with harmful concessions. Their empowered status as a cohesive voting bloc ensures progressives cannot be sidestepped in the governing process. 

Still, the committee selection process must be more democratic, transparent, and accountable. Leadership should cede more of its decision-making power and do away with arcane and arbitrary rules and norms, such as barring freshman membership on certain committees, or insisting on the exclusivity of some committees, and reimagine committee criteria based on the needs of communities rather than the narrow interests of donors. 

As we move to the next Congress, the stakes could not be higher. Facing climate catastrophe, a byzantine and cruel healthcare system, and an ever-widening wealth gap that stifles the dreams of millions, the people’s House should be more inclusive of those who carry the people’s voice. That starts with opening more committee doors to those who can drive real progressive change forward. 

Zephyr Teachout is an associate law professor at Fordham Law School.