Roll Call: Some lawmakers question amount of time spent in committees

By Caroline Simon

The House parliamentarian brought the hammer down on the Education and Labor Committee in April, ending a long-standing practice that allowed panel members from both parties to vote on bills in committee on a flexible schedule — a violation of the House ban on proxy voting.

Members say their schedules have become so hectic and compressed that the courtesy, which the committee has extended for years, is needed. But the practice raises a bigger question: How sustainable are members’ often packed and chaotic schedules?

It’s an issue being examined by the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which holds another hearing on the matter Wednesday as part of its directive to offer recommendations on overhauling the way Congress does things.

Earlier this year, at another Modernization hearing that featured testimony from multiple members, Pennsylvania Democrat Chrissy Houlahan laid out the problem.

“Tomorrow I am supposed to be at two subcommittee meetings for the same committee at the same time, and I [and] nine other people are on both subcommittees,” the freshman lawmaker said in March. “There’s no way that I can physically be there, and that’s only one of my committees.”

One member who benefited from the voting flexibility at Education and Labor was California Democrat Mark DeSaulnier. There’s good reason he probably needed this special carve-out — he sits on four committees and seven subcommittees, one of the most packed rosters in the entire House.

A day with DeSaulnier illustrates the breakneck schedules of the chamber’s busiest members.

On a Wednesday morning in June, DeSaulnier threaded his way through the crowded Cannon Building basement, a staffer by his side, on his way to a 10 a.m. House Oversight and Reform hearing about the opioid crisis. It was one of three simultaneous hearings on his calendar that day.

After 10 minutes in that hearing, though, he ducked out and made his way to Transportation and Infrastructure, where he spent about 15 minutes before leaving for another hearing at Education and Labor. After 15 minutes there, he was back at Oversight and Reform for another 40 minutes, then back to Transportation and Infrastructure for 20 minutes.

Despite the stacked schedule of committee assignments, DeSaulnier said he thought he’d juggled it all pretty well.

“Personally, I like it,” he says. “It’s intellectually stimulating. You just have to manage your time with it.”

DeSaulnier is one of seven members who sit on four committees. But he and Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin are the only two of that group whose committees all meet frequently.

While DeSaulnier may be an extreme example, it’s common for members to dash between multiple commitments. It’s not a new problem, and its causes are multifaceted, but part of it is the declining influence of committees in the face of increasing party and leadership clout. Even though committee hearings and markups fill members’ schedules as they always have, votes in some panels are reliably party-line, reflecting party positions more than experience and knowledge of a particular policy area.

It’s also true that a major factor in the time crunch is that members simply are on more committees than in the past. According to data compiled by the Brookings Institution, the average number of standing committee, subcommittee and other committee assignments for members of the 84th Congress (1955-56) was three. By the 115th Congress (2017-18), the average number of assignments had increased to 5.3, while the number of committees had risen from 22 to 27.

Reducing committee slots is far from a priority for leadership because seats on certain high-profile panels like Ways and Means, Appropriations or Energy and Commerce can be valuable bargaining chips with members looking to help their districts or build a following, said Hugh Halpern, who was floor director for former Speaker Paul D. Ryanand staff director of the House Rules Committee.

Halpern said it’s a balancing act. “If you have to be on the Small Business Committee, they want to try to give you something that’s a little bit higher-profile,” he said. “If you’re just on Small Business and Science, that kind of sucks.”

Another contributing factor is the shift of work from the subcommittee level to the full committee level. The relevance of subcommittees has declined over the last few decades, experts say. In the 94th Congress (1975-76) there were 151 total subcommittees of standing committees; in the 115th, there were just 92, according to the Brookings data.

“The subcommittee activity has declined for some of the same reasons that the committee activity has declined,” said Bryan Jones, a University of Texas at Austin professor who has compiled data on congressional committee activity. “Too much is done through the parties and not enough through the committee structure.”

With the exception of committees that reliably produce complex legislation every year — like Appropriations and Armed Services — many panels have subcommittees that hold hearings but infrequently mark up legislation. Those hearings demand members’ time, but don’t prevent lengthy committee markups at a later stage.

“I would have less interest in being on four committees if the subcommittees did more work,” DeSaulnier said. “I like being busy at this level. I would prefer to be more busy, in-depth on specific issues.”

Alaska Republican Don Young, the longest-serving member of the House, sees a marked decline in productivity from his earlier days in the chamber, which he joined in 1973.

“I personally think most committee meetings are a waste of time,” he said. “I go to most markups because I do think you should be there to vote on a markup. I very rarely go to hearings because you’re not going to learn anything.”

Jones’ data shows that committees are holding fewer hearings than ever, and that hearings are far more likely to be related to oversight than a specific bill. It used to be about a half-and-half split. Today, according to Jones, committees hold eight oversight hearings for every legislative hearing.

Aside from committee meetings, members must also balance floor votes, constituent meetings, off-campus events and fundraising — a necessity for most members running for reelection. DeSaulnier spends one or two hours a day fundraising.

There is consensus that the current committee scheduling structure is far from ideal, but there’s less consensus on how to fix it. 

Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer, who chairs the Modernization Committee, and Georgia Republican Tom Graves, the panel’s ranking member, said in a statement that lawmakers “often find themselves pulled in a number of different directions on any given day — whether it be committee business, floor votes or constituent engagement all at the same time.” They plan to further explore the issue.

Halpern said members of Congress have tried over the years to solve the problem, pointing to a proposal from Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop that involved “A” committees and “B” committees having different designated meeting days. Like other proposals, it was stymied by the reality of legislating on a tight timeline.

But Halpern is optimistic about the future. “The Modernization Committee has been doing great work,” he said. “If they can come up with an attempt to crack this nut, more power to them.”

Houlahan suggests staggering the start times of committee meetings.

“I can tell you that the high school scheduling of high school classes is much more effectively run than the scheduling of Congress,” the congresswoman said, remembering her days as a teacher.

Young is more skeptical, instead advising newcomers to work within the current committee structure.

“I’ve tried to tell all my freshmen: Don’t try to get on more than two. Dedicate yourself to what you have the most interest in and don’t worry about not being there if you’re not there,” the longtime lawmaker said. “You just can’t be every place at one time. It makes you really like a butterfly with no flowers, fluttering around here and there and not getting anything.”

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