What Do Congressional Committees Do? (with Maya Kornberg)

By Kevin R. Kosar February 6, 2023

The topic of this episode is, “What do congressional committees do?”

My guest is Dr. Maya Kornberg. She is a political scientist in the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center. Dr. Kornberg leads the center’s work related to information and disinformation in politics, Congress, and money in politics. Maya also is the author of Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Dysfunction in the Legislative Process (Columbia University Press, 2023.) All of that makes her the perfect person to answer the question, “What do congressional committees do?”

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our republic. It’s a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be, and that is why we are here to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Kornberg, welcome to the podcast.

Maya Kornberg:

Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Kevin Kosar:

Since its earliest days—more than two centuries ago—each chamber of Congress has had committees and used them for lawmaking, oversight, etc. Why committees?

Maya Kornberg:

As you noted, committees have been essential institutions in Congress since its inception. One of the reasons for this is that Congress is a big organization with an enormous number of issues to handle. So committees act as sub-organizations that can help Congress perform specific duties. Congress delegates work through its committees, so they also serve as indicators of how Congress is apportioning responsibility and resources. And in terms of power within the chambers, committees help to decentralize power, and encourage and give space to more legislators from both parties to be active participants in the policymaking process.

Kevin Kosar:

You note in the book that committees have four core functions: deliberation, education, theater, and personal connection. What do you mean by these terms?

Maya Kornberg:

These are the core functions that legislative scholars have identified as key roles of committees in legislatures, generally.

First and foremost, scholars identify committees as a deliberative forum within Congress. Woodrow Wilson once wrote that “The House both deliberates and legislates in small sections. It delegates its legislative and deliberative functions to stand in committees.” And what does deliberation mean? As you and your co-authors touch on in Congress Overwhelmed, deliberation is really about weighing the different aspects of a question and reasoning through the different causes and consequences. This is a crucial part of any policy formulation, and something that committees handle in Congress.

Traditionally, committees are where research is brought in and technical learning takes place, and that’s what I mean by education. Congress is a body in which many lawmakers have to legislate on specialized topics that they don’t have any training in. Committees give them the space to learn—they are a place where lawmakers gather information and educate themselves about specific policy areas.

Committees are also one of the major bipartisan institutions in an increasingly partisan Congress, so they form a space for members of Congress to cultivate personal relationships with each other and with the witnesses. Members from both parties come together on a regular basis in committees for hearings and other regular work. And this forms a space then for potential personal connection between members.

In my book, I tell the story of a particularly notable friendship that came from a committee, and that is the friendship between longtime senator, Dick Lugar, whom I interviewed before he passed away in 2019, and then-senator, Barack Obama. Republican Senator Lugar told me that Barack Obama was frequently one of the only members left in the committee when Senator Lugar was chairing, and would sit there and ask questions and be engaged. Also as a result of their joint membership in the committee, they went on several trips together—what’s known as CODELs, or congressional delegations—and were really able to maintain a friendship and fruitful working relationship across party lines for many years after, that originated in their joint membership in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So that’s what I mean by personal connection.

Finally, committees can act as what Woodrow Wilson terms “the theater of debate upon legislation.” One of the staffers that I interviewed in the book explains that sometimes the purpose of a hearing is to give a public forum to discussions that largely happen behind closed doors. This public function of committees allows members to publicize issues. It’s really a public-facing function and it can help them to mobilize support for different policy issues that they might be working on.

So these four functions—deliberation, education, personal connection, and theater—are core universal functions of committees. And my book then explores under what conditions each of these functions might be most likely in Congress today.

Kevin Kosar:

Since you’ve teed up the question nicely, are the committees of today still doing all four of these things: deliberating, education, theater, personal connection? Does it vary? Does the mix—the kind of cocktail of these four functions—change from committee to committee?

Maya Kornberg:

As I note in the book, there’re certain parameters that lead a hearing or a committee to be more likely to fulfill different functions. Today, after a series of developments over the past several decades, committees are—by and large—less autonomous, less specialized, and less deliberative than they once were as a result of decades of having staff cut and having their power taken away and usurped by party leadership.

Still, committees can serve these functions. I note in the book that, in particular, the educational platform of committees can be most likely—and this might seem counterintuitive—the further away you are from a vote or from talking about a specific piece of legislation. I spoke to members who explained that the closer you are to a vote, the more likely you are to descend into partisan tribal warfare.

But in terms of what I call agenda-setting and general education about topics—this is really important because these members of Congress still need to be legislating about all of these very specialized topics—committees can still serve this general education function. I tell the story in the book, for example, of the genetic engineering hearing in 2015, which was at the very beginning of genetic engineering science and development of that science in the United States. Members talked about this hearing as one in which—at the very beginning—this policy issue becoming something that they would need to regulate, fund, and legislate about. They were able to learn about this because it had not yet been colored by partisanship in the way that many issues are.

I also note in the book that personal connection can still occur, but under specific circumstances. As we know, Congress is becoming increasingly partisan. Frequently, the only time that members have to connect with each other is within the rancorous halls of Congress because many of them don’t live in Washington; whereas before the mid-90s, they did and they had plenty of opportunities to form personal connections. One of the things I talk about in the book are opportunities like field hearings, like congressional delegation trips that committees facilitate that allow members to socialize with each other and form personal connections outside of Congress.

So again, these kinds of hearings and committee work might allow for more personal connection than we see in traditional scripted and partisan hearings within the halls of Congress. Similarly, the committee hearings that we see in Congress with all the cameras all teed up might actually be the place for more theater. But when they’re out on the road—with for example, the Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill Listening Tour, listening to farmers—there might be more space for actual interaction and less theater.

So, again, in the book, I explore when each of these is most likely, arguing that they all take place in Congress, but we can learn from when they take place in order to think through what reforms can help facilitate more of these different functions in Congress today.

Kevin Kosar:

Yes, and a point you make very clearly in the book is that hearings have different purposes. Sometimes, it is just exploring an issue that they’re digging in and the hearing is probably going to be rather drab. So that’s lots of experts coming in and presenting data on this, that, and the other. In other instances, the point is to call attention to something—to get the media’s attention, to say, “Hey, here’s a thing that everybody should be asking questions about,” and perhaps wagging fingers and shame. So what you get is going to depend on what the ultimate outcomes are.

Now, you mentioned personal connection, and this was a really fascinating part of the book. With personal connection comes trust. And ultimately, for legislature to work—to be able to build a majority, to be able to create a piece of legislation—there’s got to be some trust between individuals so that they can collaborate, create a shared work project, move it through the chamber, and deal with the resistance that’s inevitably going to come—whether it’s media criticism or criticism with their own party or the other party. You talked firsthand with people who work on committees. It seems to me that the personal connections are like the secret sauce for making it work. Did I get that right?

Maya Kornberg:

Yeah. I talk a lot in the book about the crucial importance of the relationship, specifically between committee leadership and between their respective staffs—the minority and the majority staff—in crafting hearings. In my interviews with staff and with members, it became very clear to me that there are the formal rules, but there’re also the informal norms that—in many cases—trump formal rules because of the importance of personal relationships. So when the minority and the majority staff have a good relationship—and when the topic of the hearing is perhaps more bipartisan—then there is space to even create joint witness lists and to think together about creating a witness panel that exposes the different aspects of an issue and the different voices that there are to hear from on an issue. On the other hand, in the absence of good personal relationships, the minority gets the minimal notice that the hearing is happening and their one witness—which the minority is always entitled to.

And I also show, by looking at what I call “balance scores,” that hearings in which the ranking member and the chair are closer to each other ideologically—I use DW-NOMINATE scores to look at that—might yield more balanced hearings. And I create this methodology for creating balanced scores in the book, which are a way of measuring how balanced a witness panel is (how many witnesses are speaking for or against a certain topic). So really, the chair and the ranking member—both their ideological positioning but also their relationship and the relationship between their staffs—can be critical in either creating a space where there will be a balanced witness panel with many different perspectives, or a witness panel in which there is really just one minority witness there to promote the messaging of the minority party, and the rest of the witness panel is there in order to promote the messaging of the majority party.

These are the hearings that we frequently think about when we think about Congress because that’s what we see on television, but that’s not all hearings. There are many hearings in which there are joint lists, there is a real space for deliberation, and reasoning through the many aspects of the issue, but that is more likely when there is a joint approach, a joint list. And relationships are really critical in order to be having those discussions and coming together as a committee to create a hearing, to create a witness panel, and to set up the building blocks for a real deliberative conversation that can happen in committees. That is more likely when the committee comes together in that way.

Another thing that I found really interesting was one of the committees that I spoke to—in which the minority and the majority had a good relationship—would approach the Congressional Research Service with a joint question before each hearing and ask for a joint report from the CRS that they could send to all the members and the staff to prime them with the same neutral information before the hearing. Things like that really set the tone for the hearing to come and create the space for real reasoning through the different aspects and real openness to alternatives.

Kevin Kosar:

Over the past century, the power of committees has risen and it’s fallen. Today, committees are not quite the powerhouses they were 50 years ago. In simplest terms, how is it that committees’ power can grow or shrink?

Maya Kornberg:

That’s a really interesting question and I think that a number of factors shape the relative power of committees.

In legislatures, in general, parties and committees tend to act as competing organizing structures. Historically, as well as internationally, we see that the power of the two is inversely correlated. Committees tend to be weaker during periods where power is concentrated in parties and party leadership, and vice versa. And this is really the story that we’ve seen unfold over the last several decades in Congress. Party leaders and parties have usurped control and committees have lost power.

I’d highlight a few key events in that. And I think the story begins in the 1970s. It begins, of course, earlier on, but in terms of the loss of committee power the 1970s saw some key events. There was the Legislative Reorganization Act in 1970 that reduced the power of chairs, it increased the power of leadership in assigning chairs, and slashing committee staff. And these all hurt committee autonomy and committee power, and gave more power to the Speaker.

Another key moment was in 1995. Newt Gingrich comes to power as Speaker and he doubles the number of votes of the Speaker on the steering committee, increases the hold of party leadership on committee chairs, and he further cuts staff. So we’ve really seen a huge decline in the number of staff that Congress relies on. They have several thousand fewer staff than they did a few decades ago. And this loss of staff—who are really key to helping committees specialize—along with the increasing grip of the Speaker on chair selection are really emblematic of this trend. So you have a stronger Speaker in the House right now and you have weaker, less autonomous, less specialized committees.

We also see a similar trend in the Senate. The Senate in the first half of the 20th century was known as a decentralized chamber in which parties struggled to maintain control. But deliberation declined in the second half of the 20th century because senators were struggling with a lot of committee assignments and with a rising workload. And similar to the House, committees also lost staff relative to parties. So though the overall level of Senate staff has remained relatively similar, the number of staff working under the party, and I find this statistic really crucial in understanding the story, the number of staff working under party leadership increased by 263% between 1977 and 2016. So again, we see the power flowing from committees to party leadership.

I think it’s interesting to end by noting that we are discussing this at a very interesting time in terms of this push and pull between party and party leadership and committees. We’re at a very unique moment with Speaker Kevin McCarthy coming to power. He’s a Speaker who faces the threat of the motion to vacate, and he leads—as we’ve all seen in the strife leading up to the Speaker vote—a divided party. Looking at this as a scholar of committees, I do wonder if this opens up some space for committees and committee leadership to reclaim some power because we see a weakening party leader and Speaker. And this might leave some space for another golden era for committees, but I guess we will see how that unfolds.

Kevin Kosar:

Before I close this off, I just wanted to get two quick things in. First, you may be surprised to hear that there are fewer committee staff in the House of Representatives today than there were 40 years ago. This is not a great formula, considering that government has got much more and larger responsibilities.

Second point is that we’ve seen a breakdown—particularly in the House of Representatives—of regular order. This is the sort of “Schoolhouse Rock” way of getting work done where a bill gets introduced and then it gets referred to committee, and then the committee decides what to do with it. And ultimately, it may amend it and rework it, but it gets reported out with some assumption that it has a decent chance at getting a vote. Nowadays, that’s not the way things frequently work. Instead, you have policy being made elsewhere: frequently amongst leadership, frequently with the House Rules Committee weighing in, drafts of bills being swapped in at the last moment that look different from the work product that may have come in—all of which can lead to a diminishment of committee strength.

All right, we have reached our time. Dr. Maya Kornberg, thank you for helping us better understand congressional committees and what they do in Congress.

Maya Kornberg:

Thank you so much for having me.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Jaehun Lee and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging @AEI. Once again, thank you for listening, and have a great day.


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