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Prepared for APSA Study o f

Con gress Conference ,


October 20, lq73
Washington , .l, C.
Congressional Conunittees
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Richard F. fenno, Jr.
of Rochester
A brief report on the ''comparative conuni ttee" project of The
Study of Conp;ress may be of passinP, interest--and the occasion of
considerable disappointment--to three groups. To the Carnegie Cor-
poration, which had every right to expect something novel in exchange
for its support, there is reported only the unexciting theme of the
project, that conp,ressional conunittees differ. ror scholars of
Congress, who doubtless hoped for a fairly convincing explanation
of committee differences, there is provided only the most tentative
and rudimentary steps in that direction. For people interested in
the current work of the Select Committee on Committees,. who are
casting about for specific reform proposals, there is suggested
only a very general reform strategy. Since it is too late in the
day to tamper with the books I shall make a straightforward
of rrry research and its implications for conp.ressional
reform.
First, let outline the basic respects in which I think
committees differ. I shall restrict my illustrations to the House
conuni ttees studied f or the project: Appropriations, i.:ducation and
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and Labor, foreiv,n Affairs, Interior, Post Office and Ways and Mean::;.
i-'.ost important, committees differ in what they can do to help
their own members achieve their various individual r,oals. I can
think of three basic goals congressmen have: to p,et reelected,
to be influential in the House, to help make good public policy.
Conunittees differ in the opportunities they provide congressmen for
these goals. And each committee tends to p,et populated by
members long as they. stay on the committee--want to take
advantage of its special opportunities.
For example, committees like Appropriations or Ways and Means
provide an especially good opportunity to gain influence in the
House. Committees lik& tducation and Labor and Foreign Affairs
provide an especially good opportunity to get involved in nationally
controversial policy questions. Committees like Interior and Post
Office provide a speci l opportunity to serve discrete of
constituents and, ilence, to gain reelection help. Furthermore.
the kinds of incentives that exist for a members help
to detennine the way the committee its decisions and the
.substance of those dectsions.
The second important in which committees differ is
in the nature of the political environment they inhabit--that is,
the kinds of outside inten!sts that pay attention to them and trv
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to influence their activities. for example, thP. Affairs
Committee environment is dbminated by the executive branch; on the
other hand, clientele groups (especially the postal
unions) dominate the environment of the Post Office Committee.
l1ouse leaders and House members generally take a more sustained
interest in the work of Appropriations and Ways and Means than
they do, for instance, in the work of Interior or Education and
Labor. Lducation and Labor's environment is highly partisan;
Interior's is not. Some environments (like those of Foreign
Affairs and Post Office) are very monolithic; some {like those
of Interior and Education and Labor) are very pluralistic. And
so on. These environmental differences also help determine com-
mittee decis'ion-making processes and committee decisions.
So, these are the two most basic ways in which committees
differ--their members pursue different goals and they inhabit
different political environments. It is these two variables which,
,;hen combined, explain a third difference--a difference in each
committee's definition of its job. Depending, first, on what
they want to get out of their committee
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and second, on what outside p,roups they must accommodate,
each committee's members try to agree on some rr,eneral guidelines
for decision-making. Without explicating the logic in each
particular case, it is by a strategic balancing of t his sort thnt
the Appropriations Committee comes to emphasize budgetcutt inr;,
that Ways and Means emphasizes puttinR together a bill that w i 11
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pass on the House floor, that Interior emphasizes passage of a
huge volume of constituency-related bills, that Education and
Labor empl'\asizes the prosecution of policy partisanship, that
Foreign Affairs emphasizes support for the aid bill, that
Post Office long emphasized higher wages for postal workers. These
various iob definitions obviously have varying and direct effects
on committee behavior. , Alld they, in turn, can be altered by
altering committee member goals and conmittee environments
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Stopping momentarily, this kind of analysis has some implica-
tions for committee reform, If committees are different, then we
ought to be cautious about prescribing across-the-board reforms,
about equal reforms in equal dosages for all committees.
Our strategy of conmittee reform, that is, should be more retail
than wholesale. Since .. everybody knows" (especially congressmen)
that committees differ, the point hardly seems worth makinr,. The
problem is that while it may be what knows it is
what everyone forgets first when he sets about to reform
sional corrani ttees. The logic of committee re form embedded in the
1946 and 1970 reorganization acts is a wholesale lor,ic. too,
are the recent for openinp: up the pro-
ceedings of all corrrnittees to public scrutiny and "bill of rip.hts"
prescriptions for fastening common subcommittee procedures on all
committees. Criticisms of the seniority rule and efforts to chanp.e
it have proceeded according to a wholesale for decades.
',' ...
Willy-nilly, committee reformers like the Select Committ ee will
sometimes follow a retail strategy. They can, for example, 11,Jrdl v
avoid concentrating on the budget .committees. The burden of my
argument is simply that they self consciously adopt such a
If they did, they might find it a liberating reform posture--rel.ievinr.
them of any compulsion to search for blanket remedies for
related to one or a few corrmittees. One particularly effective
retail method for altering committee environments is to control
committee jurisdictions. And the Select Committee can be expected.
to make considerable use of this method. But I see no reason why
they ought to assume that a wholesale reorganization of committee
jurisdictions is called for. (One paralleling executive branch
organization or one featuring a few super committees are
suggestions.) Indeed, would be totally at a loss to predict how
individual committees would perform under such reorganizations.
Selective changes in the jurisdictions of existinp, committees
can have important and somewhat more predictable effects--good or
bad, of course, depending on one's values. Broadeninr, the juris-
diction of the Committee to include all "backdoor
spending" c9uld produce a marked increase in budgetary coordination.
Gi vinp; Affairs jurisdiction over trade could pluralize that
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Committee's \envit'Onment and give it rooN bargaining leverage and
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independenci in its relations with the exec1.t i ve branch. 1.1i vidi nr;
the jurisdi ion of t ducation and Labor coul<l have the reverse
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effect, making the environment of each of the two new committees
more monolithic, and more easily dominated by (fewer) outside
groups. If, as I suspect is the case, oversip,ht is
made easier, if not stimulated, when environments are pluralistic
and competitive, the S,lec-t Conunittee ought to examine each juris-
dictional change in this light, too.
to the tnain line of the conl'llittees differ,
in the fourth place, in the way they make their decisions, in the
way they operate intel"ilally. These differences, of degree and of
kind, are evidenced in matters as participation, specializa-
tion, expertise, subcommittee activity, partisanship, leadership
and consensus on committee tasks. Internal committee
stemming as they do from different combinations of goals, environ-
ments and job definitions-are varied and complex. And I shall
make only one general observation about them. It appears from the
committees I have studied that an overall difference them
involves the degree of decision-making autonomy thev display. On
some committees the membrs themselves have the dominant say in
de.cisionmakinp,; on other committees, outside P,roups have the
dominant say in decision-making. Indeed, if you classify House
committees in accordance with a rough estimate of decision-
makinp; autonomy, it pr-ovides the key to a more classifi-
cation of House committees.
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It may help us to think of House committees as beinp of two
basic types. I them corporate committees and pP.rm".!able
committees. Corporate committees are alike in having a high de r, re e
of decision-making autonomy. Uut they share a pattern of other
characteristics as well--an agreement on what their job is, a iob
definition that indicates concern for their success and reputation
on the House floor, empha$is on their expertise, a strong sense
of identification with their committee and a good deal of intenial
cohesion. Permeable committees, on the other hand, display markedly
less decision-making autonomy--along with less of a consensus on
their job, less concern for their success and reputation on the
House floor, less attention to expertise and less attachment to
their convnittee as an institution. These are, of course, not
absolutes, :)ut matters of degree. Among the commit tees I have
studied, Ways and Means and Interior fall nearest
the corporate end of the scale; Education and Labor, Foreir.n
Affairs and Post Office fall nearest the permeable end of the
scale.
Both types have strengths and weaknesses. And they are the
reverse of one another. Corporate corranittees tend to be more
influential .but less responsive than permeable committees. Per-
meable tend to be more responsive but less influenti al
than permeable committees.
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Committee reformers must ask themselves, for each cormnittee of
the House,whether they prefer to have more or less influential than
it now is, more or less permeable than it now is and how much of
one characteristic they are willing to trade off for how much of
the other. I do not think a few judicious dollops can make all
committees equal and/ol' equally balanced in these respects. :ior
do I think it is c\esireable to do so. Rather, it is desireable
that some committees be, especially influential and others be
especially I'esponsive. Committees whose work is most essential
to the influence of the House of Representatives within the American
system should be especially corporate and influential. ttees
whose work is related to the broadest social movements of the times
should be especially permeable and responsjve. Institutional
integrity requires the first; nublic confidence requires the
second.
again, reform seems in order,for the
most commonly articulated problems concerninp. corporate and per-
committees differ. Corporate committees are criticized
for their tendency t o operate too independently of the very insti -
tution in whose name they 1-lield such crucial power. ')ince the maior
institutional mechanism for superintendinp, and coordinatinr, committe e
activity is the congressional party, the common prohlem of corporat e
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committees revolves around their relation to thP. party leadc r::;hi r.
find the problem can best be alleviated by gi vin.g party leaderJ
somewhat more influence over the work of corporate committees.
Giving the Speaker authority to appoint the chairmen of the Way s
and Means and Appropriations Committeess--but only those two (plus
Rules )-- .. 1ould be an appropriate step in this direction.
for permeable committees, on the other hand, the most commonly
criticized tendency is their lopsided responsiveness to unrepresen-
tative groups outside the Congress. Clientele oriented committees
have been particularly suspect in this regard. As sup.gested
earlier, this condition might be alleviated in some cases by juris -
dictional change. But it might be alleviated more directlv by
altering the balance of incentives of a committee'::; members.
Control over the selection of committee members is to member r,oals
what control over jurisdictions is to environments--a particularly
effective retail method for altering committee behavior. rJne remedy
for Committees deemed to be so dependent on outsiders as to have
lost some capacity for independent judgment would be deliberately L<
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salt iLwith members whose interests diverge from those of the
dominant outside groups. I do not think the Select Committee s hould
ignore the problem of representative memberships by calling it
strictly a party m ~ t e r or by trying to accomplish indirectly by
means of jurisdictional control what might be accomplished directly
by personnel control.
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Which brings me to a final comment. My own re search on con -
gressional committees makes member goals or member incentives one
of the two key variables for understanding diffet'ences in committee
behavior. ile cannot have intelligent discussions of committee
reform without addressing ourselves to this variable frontally
and openly. Yet we face a difficult obstacle in any such effort.
Congressmen will not address themselves to it frontallv and openlv.
'ihey shy away from the discussion of two goals in part icular--the
desire for influence inside the House and the desire to get reele cted.
It is as if they feel the legitimacy of these goals is publicly
suspect. (The third goal--making r,ood public policy--is, by con -
trast, widely accepted as goal of every r;ood conrrre s :
man . ) If such is the public view, .i.t is wrong; -1nd conr,TI?ssmen
bear the heaviest burden iil roeducatinP, the public.
If I am correct, it means that committees whose distinctive
membe r p,oals are influence and reelection will be most under the
public gun. And, uccordingly, they are especially in need of publi c
underst anding. Conr.ressman reformers ouP,ht to acknowledge thn
lep,itimacy and the of keepinr. Appropriat ions and Ways
and Means members influential inside the House if they ;ire to perform
the budr,etary tasks expected of them. And t hey oup,ht to acknowledv1'
t he ler,itimacv and the necessity of populatinP, s everal othe r


(Agri culture, Public Works, Armed Services) heavilv with
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members whose constituents are especially concerned with the com-
mittee's activity. A more forthright discussion of incentives
might also help educate the public in the necessity and leRitimacv
of closed door committee meetings or of member incentives to increase
legislative oversight activity. More open discussions of this nature
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might make reform efforts themselves less indirect,/\suhterranedn and rn<rc
realistic. Surely they would make a retail reform strategy easier to
implement and defend. And they might (though I would not hold out
too much hope in this regard) improve the quality of political s(:i'! ll CP.
contributions to committee reform efforts.