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Political Scene

Inside Baseball Rules Congress
Emily Lehr Wallace

Every two years following an election, re-elected and newly elected members come to Washington, D.C., and convene a new Congress. The 109th Congress convened on Monday, Jan. 3, when members swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. The atmosphere is akin to the first day of school because husbands, wives, children and parents are on hand to see the members sworn in. Everyone has on their best suit, is donning a new camera-ready haircut and is giddy with anticipation of what the next two years will hold. Once the receptions are over, last interviews given, and families return home, it’s time to get to work — almost.

When many Americans think of Congress at work, they likely conjure up an image of senators and representatives debating a bill on the floor of the Senate or House. Contrary to that notion, much of the actual work that Congress does takes place in committees. When legislation is introduced, it goes to a committee for consideration, where a small group studies the bill, perhaps holds a hearing examining its benefits and drawbacks, and proposes amendments that may (or may not) enhance the purpose of the bill. Only a small number of bills advance out of committee and onto the floor for consideration by the full House or Senate. Thus, the committees are key in shaping any bills that eventually become law, and understanding the committee structure can give scientists power in promoting their interests.

Understanding the committee structure can give scientists power in promoting their interests.

At the beginning of each two-year term, Congress sets rules as to how committees will operate, and these rules impact each piece of legislation that Congress examines. The rules also set the tone for each committee by specifying its jurisdiction. While the jurisdiction of committees is tinkered with a bit every two years, meaningful restructuring of committees rarely happens. In fact, it has occurred only three times in the modern Congress — the mid-1940s, mid-1970s and mid-1990s. Moreover, the changes actually enacted were much less extensive than those sought by reformers. The reason is that committee jurisdictions are regarded as “turf,” and reapportioning that turf can ignite a war.

Such a turf war happened with the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It was created in late 2002 by assembling 22 disparate federal agencies with more than 170,000 employees into a single cabinet-level department. For Congress to oversee this agency, though, any future legislation or oversight hearings would have to go through any combination of the 88 committees and subcommittees with formal jurisdiction over at least one function of the new department. Faced with that organizational challenge two years ago, Congress decided not to raise the ire of the 88 committees and their chairmen. Instead, they punted and resorted to the same ad hoc committee arrangement they used to formulate the bill establishing DHS.

While this arrangement worked for the past two years, outside pressure from the 9/11 Commission and the resulting legislation that overhauled the U.S. intelligence community forced Congress to establish a new standing committee this year, thus wresting away turf from those other committees. This means that any proposed legislation regarding DHS will only go through that committee.

Once committee jurisdiction is spelled out in the rules, House and Senate leadership must choose chairmen for these committees. This process is complicated and is often referred to as “inside baseball” because little is known about it in outside circles, and few outsiders can influence the process. Both Republicans and Democrats have a steering committee that identifies and interviews potential chairs before nominating them to the post. Once chairs are chosen, they designate the subcommittee chairmen and work with the leadership to determine committee (and subcommittee) membership.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Resources Committee, did this in late January and named Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) as the new chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals. Gibbons is the only geologist in Congress and will now oversee every bill regarding the U.S. Geological Survey, mining interests, geothermal resources, the conservation of America’s uranium supply, the conservation and development of oil resources on the Outer Continental Shelf, and mineral resources on public lands, among other issues.

Pombo also named second-term Rep. David Nunes (R-Calif.) as the new chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks. Freshman representatives are fortunate to get committee assignments that are either germane to them (for example, a spot on the Financial Services Committee if you were a stockbroker before coming to Congress) or their district (for example, serving on the Armed Services Committee if there are military bases in your district), let alone to get a chairmanship. Although Nunes’ chairmanship is not related to his expertise or district, it is unusual that he received chairmanship as a sophomore representative. The appointment demonstrates real commitment by the majority to see him succeed.

Both of these chairmanships, among a host of others, are notable because they present an opportunity for the geoscience community to engage these members, offer to serve as a resource and offer to answer questions from their staff. We have the chance to make these members true believers that quality science informs good public policy. Knowing the ins and outs of committee jurisdictions and chairmanships is knowledge that comes in handy when you want your voice to be heard. It helps to ensure that the right people are hearing you.

Wallace is with the Government Affairs Program at the American Geological Institute. Email:

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