Are Democrats allergic to accountability of any type, whether it's the good kind or (what some would call) the bad kind, when it comes to committee chairmen? Democrats, you may recall, were swept into control of both chambers of Congress in 2006 on a pledge to restore ethical accountability in Washington after the scandals of their Republican predecessors. Then they grew their majorities to nearly impregnable size on the coattails of Obama's change-themed election and voter dissatisfaction with the same Republican policies in the White House that were rejected in the midterms.
The Democrats started this term with two mandates: to enact their policy platform of providing more health care, education, and environmental protection and offering a more pragmatic, less belligerent approach to national security, and to improve upon the cronyism and corruption that plagued the latter years of Republican rule.
For both, they needed to overthrow the tyranny of committee chairs. To enact their policy platform, Democrats would have to mimic Republicans and subjugate the committees to a disciplined party leadership that gets in line, from the White House down to the deputy whips. To impose ethical propriety, they needed to weaken the vise grip with which old bulls held onto their fiefdoms, doling out patronage to their districts, campaign contributors, friends, and former staffers. It's possible to argue that the first is not a good thing, but almost no one would argue against the second. So far, however, the party has done neither.
Early signs—such as when Rep. Henry Waxman unseated, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's tacit approval, Rep. John Dingell as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee—suggested that the Democrats were ready to push the envelope. Dingell apparently thought that because he represented Detroit and happened to age into the chairmanship of the relevant committee, the will of the nation's voters did not matter when it came to climate-change legislation. Pelosi campaigned on the issue of climate change and would not let Dingell prevent her from fulfilling her campaign pledge. But, in retrospect, one would be forgiven for thinking that Pelosi is only in favor of imposing party discipline when it suits her personal interests.
When Newt Gingrich took control of the House of Representatives in 1995, he overturned the Democrats' ossified tradition of leaving senior members in charge of committees even when their agenda ran counter to the party's. Gingrich limited the terms of chairmen and based chairmanships in part on party loyalty and legislative acumen rather than pure seniority. Senate Republicans eventually followed suit, making Arlen Specter essentially grovel to retain his Judiciary Committee chairmanship in penitence for past apostasies on Roe v. Wade. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A more parliamentary-style system, in which Congress enacts the policies it was elected to enact, without some rogue senator or entrenched congressman blocking it due to his district's parochial interests or his personal ideological quirks, is arguably more democratic.
Democrats were not happy about these new rules when they were on the outs. But that's what elections are for, and they won the last two. You would hardly know it from watching Washington, though, at least in the Senate. Democrats have Max Baucus of Montana, the Senate Finance Committee chairman who represents a sparsely populated state, bumbling around with the health-care bill, vainly compromising on every possible point and threatening to do the same to climate-change legislation. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, runs the powerful Appropriations Committee, hails from an even less populous state than Baucus, and mucks up the same legislation as his Montana colleague. Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman is still heading the homeland-security committee even though he endorsed John McCain in 2008. President Obama's decision to let Lieberman keep his chairmanship seemed shrewd immediately after the election: better in the camp than out, and Lieberman would have to be on his best behavior to stay in the party's good graces. But Lieberman hasn't lived up to those expectations—he issued a statement criticizing Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to investigate alleged Bush-era torture of terrorism suspects, and he just said he will not support the Baucus health-care bill.
Republicans knew better than to let a squishy moderate (such as Arlen Specter) undermine the agenda voters elected them to implement. Democrats, in contrast, from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to President Obama to Rahm Emanuel, his supposedly ruthless White House chief of staff, to Jim Messina, his supposedly effective White House congressional liaison, seem not to have any problem with letting the representatives of a handful of conservative constituents undermine their overall agenda.
At least the Democrats' ineffectual insistence on letting chairmen do what they like without fear of retribution has some credibility on good-government grounds. Subjugating committees to the party leadership consolidates power. It's often argued that when one party controls the White House and Congress, it eliminates healthy checks and balances. Liberals certainly saw that in Republican policies, from the speedy buildup to war with Iraq to the passage of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. It would be silly to credit the Democrats with actually letting Lieberman obstruct their agenda out of such high principle—it's either a political calculation (albeit a very mysterious one) or simple incompetence. But at least it might have some of the effect that the framers intended when they created a bicameral legislature, with the Senate serving as the proverbial cooling shower to the House's hotheadedness.
Alas, that cannot be said for House Democrats' holding onto their embattled committee chairmen. In addition to Rep. Charlie Rangel running Ways and Means, the committee that writes the nation's tax laws, despite a few major oversights (to put it as nicely as possible) on Rangel's own tax return, they have Rep. Jack Murtha running the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. Murtha has a history of alleged ethical impropriety going back to his involvement in the infamous Abscam scandal of 1980. More recently, he has come under fire for allegedly steering earmarks to defense contractors with whom he might have a conflict of interest. It's time for both Murtha and Rangel to step aside, and yet Speaker Pelosi seems unwilling to make them do so. Unlike Harry Reid or President Obama, Pelosi seems to follow the example of her Republican predecessors, for better and for worse. Loyalty—to the party, to its principles, and to her personally, not necessarily in that order—is what Pelosi seemingly rewards.
So when will Congress be run both effectively and ethically? Don't hold your breath.