Do House committees matter anymore?
House Democrats celebrated in early February when they successfully removed Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committee assignments. It was a move they thought would neutralize the freshman congresswoman who promoted conspiracy theories about mass shootings and the government when she was a candidate.
But Greene, who also spread falsehoods about the 2020 election, saw an opportunity.
“I woke up early this morning literally laughing thinking about what a bunch of morons the Democrats (+11) are for giving someone like me free time,” Greene tweeted the following day.
And she’s probably still laughing: in her first three months in office, the congresswoman from Georgia raised $3.2 million from more than 100,000 donors, her campaign said last week.
But without a place on any committees, where the details and language of bills are traditionally hashed out, she is relegated to the far end of the bench as a legislator. Paired with her newfound publicity, Greene has found herself in a paradoxical role that could become more common in Congress.
Facing allegations of breaking sex trafficking law and having intercourse with a 17-year-old girl, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida became the latest member at risk of losing his committee assignments. If the allegations are found to be true, House Republicans will kick Gaetz off his committees, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said late last month.
But in Greene’s case, the House Republican Caucus voted not to do so. It was the Democrats who brought a resolution to the House floor and overpowered the Republicans with the help of about a dozen GOP members who crossed party lines.
It was the first known instance of the majority party voting to overturn the will of the minority party in order to remove one of their members from committees, and Republicans have signaled they’re ready for revenge whenever they retake the House.
This may come to pass soon. Democrats have what is in practice a bare two-seat hold because of vacancies that are unfilled, and the reapportionment from the 2020 census is likely to mean that in the 2020 midterm elections, some Democratic-dominant states will lose seats while more GOP-friendly states gain them.
Still, before the vote, McCarthy said that “the resolution sets a dangerous new standard” and warned Democrats, “You’ll regret this.”
The next month, McCarthy introduced his own resolution to remove Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell from his post on the Intelligence Committee over allegations a Chinese spy raised funds for his campaign a half decade ago. The measure failed along party lines, but the message was clear.
Committee assignments are important to most members of Congress because they allow them to shape laws and become specialists on particular areas of legislation. After a member introduces a bill, the House Speaker or parliamentarian assigns the bill to one or more committees.
Then it’s up to the committee chair, who is almost always a member of the majority party, to decide which bills to consider. At committee hearings, less influential members have the chance to air the concerns of their constituents with a greater authority than they hold on the floor. They also get the chance to question experts and stakeholders about policy.
Before a bill can reach the floor, a majority of a committee’s members must agree on the specifics and language of it. Greene, who had been assigned coveted posts at both the Budget and the Education and Labor Committees, has lost the ability to directly participate in that process.
“She has been neutered in a sense because the policy that we bring to the floor is so important,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida who introduced the resolution to remove Greene from her committee assignments.
On the floor, Greene can still debate and vote on amendments to the bill along with the other House members and then vote on the bill in its entirety. But while bills can change drastically after reaching the floor, they are typically most influenced in committees.
A large part of the perfect storm that brought down former Representative Steve King after eight terms was his diminished ability to legislate, said Sarah Chamberlin, the founder and president of the Republican Main Street Partnership. Chamberlin’s PAC spent over $100,000 supporting Representative Randy Feenstra’s primary bid against King after the longtime congressman was taken off his committees by his own caucus for speaking in support of white supremacy.
The assignments King lost included one on the Agriculture Committee, where bills critical to the Iowa farming communities he represented are written.
“Whatever you think of Steve King, it’s clear that he’s no longer effective,” a local conservative said in a television ad Main Street ran ahead of the election.
But Georgia voters in the 14th Congressional District are likely to view Greene’s removal differently because it came from the opposing party.
“It makes you almost a martyr to the primary voters,” Chamberlin said. “We did not hit Steve King on his comments [in support of white supremacy] because we didn’t want to make him a martyr. We wanted to stick to business.”
Greene also differs from King in that her banishment came with Democrats in control of the House, Senate and White House. Arguably, representation on the committees under these conditions matters less. Republican Representative David Schweikert of Arizona said that true bill authorship has been consolidated within the Democratic party’s House leadership.
“There was always, ‘Hey here’s our big picture agenda.’ And you could, as a member, bust your hump to influence its drafting and design. Now, even the language comes down from on high, not just the concept,” Schweikert said. “In many ways, last year and this year, committees have become more theatrical.”
Without a chance to take part in those theatrics, Greene makes mischief on the House floor, often delaying proceedings by introducing motions to adjourn that are certain to fail. And even without committee assignments, she can certainly still introduce legislation. Greene recently recently announced a bill to cut Dr. Anthony Fauci’s salary to $0.
While these actions had little tangible results, they’re causing concern among Democrats, some of whom want Greene removed from Congress outright. Before the vote to take Greene off her committees, Democratic Representative Jimmy Gomez of California introduced a resolution that would expel her from Congress, but this would require a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority.
“She still maintains the ability to cause trouble. She maintains the ability to introduce legislation that’s bonkers and has no chance of getting passed but feeds her base,” Gomez said. “I don’t think she ever had an intention of really legislating so removing her [from committees], although punishment, is probably not as severe as it needs to be.”
But it’s still up for debate whether Greene’s position was strengthened or weakened politically by her loss of committee assignments. Under different circumstances, committee shakeups have sparked consolidation along the fringes of the GOP. When a group of far-right Republicans had their assignments changed by party leadership in 2012, Schweikert lost an enviable spot on the Financial Services Committee. He said the Democratic action against Green could backfire.
“It’s the law of unintended consequences,” Schweikert said. “It was a moment like this that created the Freedom Caucus. Is this a moment where you’ve created someone who’s going to have a national platform?”