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Legislative Effectiveness and the Waning Powers of Committee Chairs

Posted by on Saturday, March 27, 2021 in Papers.

by Alan Wiseman and Craig Volden, co-directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking 

As seen in The Hill with the title “Committee chairs continue their lawmaking decline” (March 26, 2021).

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SUMMARY: Committee chairs in the 116th Congress in the House and Senate continue a trend of decreasing lawmaking effectiveness as consistently reported in the Center for Effective Lawmaking comprehensive dataset (1973-2020). Perhaps restoring some of their prominence would offer opportunities for Congress to address America’s greatest public policy challenges.

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Committee chairs have long been considered power brokers for lawmaking. But in the recently completed 116th Congress, their lawmaking effectiveness continued a downward slide.

How do you measure lawmaking effectiveness? At the Center for Effective Lawmaking, we developed a scoring system that combines fifteen metrics, capturing how many public bills each member of Congress introduces, how far those bills advance through the lawmaking process and how substantively significant they are. We use these scores to rank every member — relative to one another, relative to benchmarks and within 21 issue areas — in their lawmaking success.

This month, we released our Legislative Effectiveness Scores for every member of the House and Senate in 2019-20. The scores reveal many broad patterns, including the declining power of committee and subcommittee chairs. For example, over the past two years, House committee and subcommittee chairs on average produced only 1.3 and 0.6 laws, respectively, from the bills that they introduced.

Put another way, eight House committee chairs (of the 23 members who held a chair) and more than half of all House subcommittee chairs did not have a single bill they sponsored become law.

At first, this low productivity might seem expected or even justified, if you consider that only 2.5 percent of the more than 9,000 bills introduced into the 116th House became law. But when you compare the lawmaking performance of committee and subcommittee chairs with that of other members of Congress over time, the picture changes drastically.

For example, consider the Legislative Effectiveness Scores in the U.S. Senate. In 2019-20, Senate subcommittee and committee chairs were about 10 percent or 40 percent more effective as lawmakers than an average senator, respectively. But slightly better than average does not constitute a major source of power and influence. Because we have applied our methodology for every Congress back to the early 1970s, we can get a sense of how far chairs have fallen.

To make the comparisons across members easy, we scale the average effectiveness scores in each Congress to a value of 1.0. In the 116th Senate, subcommittee chairs averaged 1.1 and committee chairs averaged 1.4. From the 1970s through the 1990s, however, Senate committee chairs averaged above 2.3 and subcommittee chairs averaged 1.5. These gaps above the average senator among chairs thus used to be three to five times larger than they are today.

House committee chairs in the 1970s through 1990s sponsored an average of 3.6 bills that became law per Congress — nearly three times as many as today. In other words, committee chairs used to be much more effective at lawmaking, both in relative and absolute terms.

Much of this decline can be traced back to the 1990s. That’s when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and the Republican majority adopted reforms to seize power away from committees and consolidate it with majority party leadership. Those reforms included imposing term limits on committee and subcommittee chairs and formulating many major policy proposals outside of the committee process. Regular order became less regular.

Republicans introducing the reforms believed that lawmaking led by party leaders would establish a coherent brand that could help capture or retain majority control in the next Congress. And Democrats followed suit in both the House and Senate.

Some effects of these reforms were felt immediately, but others accumulated over time. For example, the average Legislative Effectiveness Score of committee chairs in the Senate has fallen in each of the last six Congresses. Additionally, the reforms affected not just the chairs, but all members who benefited from strong committees.

Individual lawmakers who used to build up expertise within committees have become more scattered in their proposals across issue areas in recent Congresses. And it’s worth noting that such declining specialization is linked to lower lawmaking success.

Certainly, there are some committee chairs who continue to take a lead in lawmaking. For example, the top score (10.3) in the 116th House was achieved by former Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who chaired the Appropriations Committee. But in the Senate, the top lawmaker was neither a committee chair nor a subcommittee chair. Indeed, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) achieved the unprecedented feat of being the overall top lawmaker while serving in the minority party.

Both the House and the Senate are considering reforms to promote more effective lawmaking. The House has reestablished the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress to consider reforms to its internal workings. And the Senate is considering filibuster reform — which will likely have profound consequences for lawmaking — among other changes. Given how far committees and their chairs have fallen since the days when they took the lead in lawmaking, perhaps restoring some of their prominence would offer additional opportunities for Congress to address America’s greatest public policy challenges.

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Alan Wiseman is the Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University. Craig Volden is a professor of public policy and politics, with appointments at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at UVA. Volden and Wiseman are co-directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

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