- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

The House selected Rep. Joe Barton of Texas as the new chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee last week, replacing Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who is stepping down. Mr. Barton, an earnest and cerebral 20-year House veteran, is the only Texan besides former Speaker Sam Rayburn, who wielded the gavel in the 1930s, to ever chair this panel — a well-deserved honor for the soft-spoken workhorse from the small town of Ennis.

Mr. Barton, however, takes the helm of the oldest standing committee in Congress in a partisan environment very different than when he first came to the House in 1984. Gone are the days when the pro-business Democrats would routinely join Republicans and form bipartisan coalitions, leaving the more liberal members on the panel scrambling. The committee, which has one of the broadest jurisdictions over business activity, in the past may have displayed the regulatory warning sign “slippery when wet” to describe its shifting coalitions. Today, a new moniker applies: “Danger, combustible materials on board.”

But the Energy and Commerce Committee is not unique. While the partisan Cold War has intensified in recent years in Congress in general, most only see the new polarization played out in vigorous floor debates. Congressional committees, however, particularly those panels that produce the bulk of legislation in politically sensitive areas such as taxes, trade, health care and spending, have become hotbeds of partisanship. Trends in these committees over the past 20 years are another reason why “changing the tone in Washington,” is easier said than done.

Committees serve as the first line of defense or offense over the legislative agenda. When partisan muscle atrophies, evidence of change occurs first in these panels. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush and his allies in Congress convinced five Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee to join with a majority of Republicans to push through a capital-gains-tax reduction. Passing the bill in committee paved the way for a major victory on the House floor for a Republican president in a Democrat-controlled Congress.

“That would not happen today,” one veteran tax lobbyist said. Committees, like Congress overall, are more disciplined and ideological today. Yet, this greater unity and polarization appears even more extreme in certain committees, particularly among Democrats, due to internal decisions made by party leaders, as well as external political transformations.

After Democrats lost control of the Ways and Means Committee on that key tax vote in 1989, legislative leaders began to install lawmakers more ideologically in line with the overall caucus. For example, after Bill Clinton chose Rep. Les Aspin as his secretary of defense, Democrats passed over the more conservative and senior Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi and selected the liberal Ron Dellums of California as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Yet, even as congressional leaders began to populate key committees with more party faithful, external changes began to infect the composition of these panels as well. Twenty years ago, Republicans found allies on Mr. Barton’s Energy and Commerce panel with conservative Democrats such as Richard Shelby of Alabama, Ralph Hall of Texas and Mr. Tauzin of Louisiana. Over the next two decades, these members all switched parties and became Republicans. “Conservative Democrats on some of these key committees were either defeated, retired or switched parties and were replaced by more partisan members,” a former House GOP leadership aide said.

These internal and external factors resulted in more extreme membership on key committees critical to Democratic Party discipline in Congress — Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Appropriations. In 1980, for example, Democrats on these panels were slightly more conservative than the full House based on interest-group ratings such as those compiled by Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). (The full House average ADA score was 56 in 1980, compared to 54 for members of the three key committees). By 2002, not only did the ADA score rise dramatically (85 average for all Democrats), but Democratic scores on the three committees were even slightly higher than the full House.

Interestingly, the pattern among Republicans is just the reverse. Like the Democrats, partisanship increased among Republicans in the last 20 years. But House Republicans as a whole are slightly more conservative than the GOP members of these three key committees.

Populating key committees with the most ideological partisans may help Democrats maintain unity at a critical stage of the legislative process, but it also perpetuates the image of a party pandering to the left and bent on obstruction — a useful foil for a president who wants to “change the tone of Washington.”

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