A congressional panel created to study the economy is becoming a new arena where Democrats and Republicans battle out their competing visions for the country’s growth.
The House committee, chaired by Rep. Jim Himes, Connecticut Democrat, seeks to find policy solutions to economic challenges facing the country, including the future of automation, rising poverty rates and opportunity gaps in education.
Mr. Himes, a former banker who grew up in a single-parent household, said his appointment by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to head the committee sends a message about Democrats’ positions on a free market economy.
“American prosperity is a function of smart government and a free market,” Mr. Himes told The Washington Times. “You need a free market with certain government intervention. I think at the end of the day though, we’ll argue where that line is.”
The committee, which was proposed by Mrs. Pelosi in December 2020, is made up of eight Democrats and six Republicans and has a diverse membership.
In addition to Mr. Himes, Democrats include Rep. Angie Craig, who represents a largely agricultural Minnesota district, as well as more liberal lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Republicans include Reps. Warren Davidson of Ohio, Jodey Arrington of Texas, Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, and Kat Cammack and Byron Donalds, both of Florida. Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin is the ranking member.
The tension between ideologies is even seen in how each party is referring to the name of panel: Democrats dub it the committee on “economic disparity and fairness in growth,” while Republicans are calling it the committee on the economy.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy initially had pulled out all six Republicans designated to the panel, after Mrs. Pelosi vetoed two of his picks from serving on the select committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. She disagreed with their objections to the 2020 election results.
But the Republican members were recently reinstated on the economic panel, participating in the roundtable-like discussions from last month onwards.
Mr. Steil said he sees the GOP’s role on the committee to push back on government intervention, which he dubbed as a fight between socialism and capitalism.
“I think we’re at a unique inflection point in the history of our country, about the direction that we want to go to create and generate prosperity,” Mr. Steil said. “American capitalism is on trial in this committee. We have a unique opportunity to vanquish the socialist argument and come out successfully with American capitalism for generations to come.”
Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College, said the battle between capitalism and socialism is one that’s long been in the spirit of Republicans in Congress.
“It’s an old, old story going back to the post-war years,” Mr. Meagher said. “That’s what Senator Taft used to say in Ohio in the 1950s. It’s what [Barry] Goldwater argued. It’s what Reagan argued. It goes back in the long history of conservative politics. Republicans argue that they’re the defenders of capitalism, and that the Democrats, when they are pushing government programs, are ushering in socialism.”
Mr. Arrington argues that stakes are higher in the current Congress, citing proposals in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion spending bill that would greatly expand the American welfare state.
The bill, known as Build Back Better, passed the House on Friday on a 220-213 vote, sending it off to the Senate for consideration.
“This will be the largest expansion of the entire entitlement programs in the welfare system we’ve seen since the Great Society,” Mr. Arrington said. “So, I think the bigger conversation that’s happening and will continue to happen is more philosophical and ideological. It’s about freedom, free people, free societies, free markets versus central planning and government control in redistribution of wealth.”
Mr. Meagher said, historically, the central question surrounding party lines has been the idea of merit vs. structure when it comes to what makes up an unequal society.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal firebrand, said one of her goals is to look at how poverty is measured in the country.
“Poverty is really defined as quality of life,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez told The Times. “I think the conservative perspective is more advocacy of a consumption tax. I personally think that doesn’t capture enough of the picture in order for it to really be a reliable measure of any sort of class experience.”
The New York Democrat said she wants her colleagues to share her view that income level is not the only indicator of poverty.
“We’ve had lawmakers and people say ‘If you’re so poor, why do you have a cell phone?’ You know, your phone may be $1,000, but it’s your only connection to the world,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said.
Select committees, however, have no legislative authority, meaning they can’t make changes to laws or offer immediate proposals for a floor vote.
Mr. Meagher argues that select committees in this Congress will benefit Democrats, due to their makeup.
“I think it’s only gotten ramped up more recently as the Republicans actually joined it,” Mr. Meagher said. “Even then, this is reflecting the Democrats’ policy proposals and agenda. That’s the problem with bipartisan select committees. They often serve the purpose of the majority party more than they’re actually bipartisan.”
The committee will issue a report by the end of 2022 with a list of policy proposals.
Mr. Himes is also initiating efforts to send panelists out across the country to meet with business and community leaders.
The committee went to Lorain, Ohio, in October and is set to travel to Silicon Valley in California in the coming months, as well as rural communities.
As chairman, Mr. Himes said his goal is to reel in partisan finger-pointing and help foster constructive ideas that have the potential to turn into policies in the future.
“There were a lot of people [Pelosi] could have chosen to lead a disparity committee, maybe from the more aggressively activist wing of the party, but she chose a former business guy who is known as sort of a centrist and pragmatist,” Mr. Himes said. “I’m going to really make sure that this committee is used to float ideas, and to have good back-and-forth on ideas, and that it’s not going to become another venue for partisan swinging.”