WASHINGTON – As chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline oversees an annual budget of more than $6 million and an influential panel that’s supposed to hold sway over legislation that touches the lives of almost every American.
Serving as a committee chair on Capitol Hill also remains a rare accomplishment: Over the past half-century, only five members of Congress from Minnesota — Kline, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and former congressmen Jim Oberstar, Martin Sabo and John Blatnik — have led House committees.
But the jobs aren’t what they used to be.
As Congress has become more partisan, the careful, sometimes tedious, work of writing legislation and guiding it through the committee process is being bypassed more frequently. Instead of producing legislation the old-fashioned way, party leaders in the House and President Obama often are opting to duel publicly, then broker last-minute deals on what has become a recurring series of crises.
Last summer, Congress and Obama took a battle over student loan rates down to the wire, narrowly avoiding a deadline that would have doubled rates for nearly 7 million students. Kline’s staff drafted versions of the bill, but House Speaker John Boehner stepped in to negotiate the final deal, leaving committee members on the outside looking in. With power in the House now centered firmly in Boehner’s office, the shift has altered the role of most committee chairs from power brokers to barely involved bystanders in many cases, congressional observers say.
“They just don’t have much power these days,” said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
The new Congress that took office in January faces a lengthy list of education and labor policy issues that are overdue for renewal or soon will be, in a political landscape still consumed with fiscal issues, immigration and gun control. Former Minnesota Republican congressman Vin Weber, now a D.C.-based lobbyist, said the legislative logjam in Kline’s committee is not reflective of his competence as chairman.
“It’s been hard for anybody to accomplish anything,” Weber said. “The climate is not conducive to any type of compromise.”
Kline declined to be interviewed for this article. The six-term incumbent announced two weeks ago that he would seek re-election to his southern metro-area House seat in 2014 and not challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken or run for governor in Minnesota.
House rules now limit committee chairs to three terms. Kline is on his second. If he wins re-election and Republicans retain control of the House in 2014, he would probably face a third under the same conditions.
“It makes his job more challenging, for sure,” said Vic Klatt, a lobbyist and consultant who worked for years as a top aide to Republicans on the House education committee.
Donors drawn to power
Although the power of committee chairs has been usurped, the incentive to take on the roles remains: Serving as chair often leads to surging campaign donations, as corporations and lobbyists whose business affairs are regulated by the committees make their presence known.
A 2011 Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) report compared campaign contributions for the two most senior members of committees.
During the 2010 election cycle, the first one after Kline assumed a leadership position on the committee, contributions from education and workforce industries to his campaign committee and PAC rose to $199,600 from $36,000, the report found — an increase of 232 percent. During the 2012 election cycle, Kline attracted nearly $1.4 million in PAC donations to his campaign committee and political action committee — $516,000 more than in the previous election cycle, when he was the ranking minority member of the education committee.
“Everybody wants to have access to the committee chairman,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow with the D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency watchdog group. “And money is a currency of access in Washington.”
The CREW study also reviewed the voting record of the committee chairmen and ranking minority members, to determine if they were more likely than colleagues to favor the industry they regulated on major legislation. The results were inconclusive.
The regular order, where legislation works its way through subcommittees, committees and then a House and Senate conference committee, has withered for decades, as party leaders have exerted more control over legislation, said Christopher Deering, a political scientist at George Washington University.
“The committee chair is allowed to do anything he wants to do, as long as the House leadership approves,” joked Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2007 to 2010.
Peterson saw evidence of that last year, when the farm bill was bottled up by top Republican House leaders.
Kline will face his own test soon. He and Obama support a proposal that would tie student loan rates to the government’s cost of borrowing. Kline has close ties to House leaders but, Deering said, his issues are not high on their radar.
“The bills that are on the [Republican] agenda are not education and labor bills, by and large,” Deering said. “That’s just realistic. It’s not his fault.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell