By Matt Glassman
When Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA) resigned from Congress earlier this month, a vacancy was created on the House Committee on Appropriations, where Dent was the chair of the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies (commonly called MilCon). Since House Republicans allocate appropriations subcommittee chairs by committee seniority, a quick game of musical chairs ensued: Representative John Carter (R-TX) left his chair of the Homeland Security subcommittee to take the MilCon chair, and Representative Kevin Yoder (R-KS) left his chair of the Legislative Branch (Leg Branch) subcommittee to take the Homeland gavel.
This opened up the chair of Leg Branch. Since none of the existing subcommittee chairs wanted to switch to Leg Branch, it fell to the most senior member of the committee without a subcommittee chair, Representative Steve Womack (R-AR). But Rep. Womack already was chairing the House Budget committee, and while he expressed interest in picking up an appropriations subcommittee gavel next Congress, he was clear he didn’t want Leg Branch. “I would prefer anything but Leg, which most appropriators would say. I mean, I don’t think that’s any secret.”
Indeed, it is not. Most appropriators have little interest in serving on Leg Branch. The four current Republican backbench members of the subcommittee are the three least-senior members of the committee and the eighth least-senior member of the committee. When Representative Dent’s replacement on the committee (John Rutherford (R-FL)) was appointed last week, his subcommittee assignments included—you guessed it—Leg Branch. Democrats similarly disdain the subcommittee. When I studied the unique draft procedures House Appropriations Democrats use to fill subcommittees, all five backbench seats on Leg Branch were among the last six picks in the entire draft.
Even the chairmanship of Leg Branch is not a particularly coveted position. In the Democratic draft study I did, there were two subcommittee chairs open, Financial Services and Leg Branch. The #1 pick in the draft took the Financial Services chair. The Leg Branch chair went to pick #16. Fourteen members chose a backbench seat on a different subcommittee—mostly Defense or Labor/HHS—rather than taking the gavel at Leg Branch.
Why don’t members want to be on the Legislative Branch subcommittee? Because it doesn’t help them achieve their goals. In Richard Fenno’s classic formulation, Members seek re-election, power within the chamber, and good public policy. Serving on Leg Branch—even having the gavel at Leg Branch—is not an effective way to achieve these goals. And since committee, party, and chamber rules limit the total number of committee seats a Member might occupy, taking a not-particularly-useful seat on Leg Branch entails significant opportunity cost. Members simply have better choices.
There are three general aspects of Leg Branch that make it unappealing to an appropriator considering her subcommittee assignments or chair opportunities. The first is that the Leg Branch bill is tiny. In the FY2018 302(b) subcommittee allocations, Leg Branch was provided a total of $4.9 billion in budget authority, which is less than one-third of one-percent of total discretionary spending. The next smallest bill—Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies—received an allocation of $36.6 billion. The structure of the appropriations committee makes Leg Branch look like the other subcommittees, but the reality is that the subcommittee controls almost no budget authority. Members seeking influence over federal spending much prefer to go where the money actually resides.
Second, Leg Branch offers almost no ways for Members to help the constituents or interest groups in their districts. The bill funds the operations of the House and Senate, as well as the support agencies of Capitol Hill (the Capitol Police, Architect of the Capitol, Library of Congress, Government Publishing Office, Government Accountability Office, and several other small support agencies). None of this spending directly impacts anyone outside of the Washington, DC Metro area. Furthermore, committee assignments have large impacts on a Member’s fundraising potential. With few organized interest jockeying for policy action in the Leg Branch jurisdiction, it is essentially a fundraising desert.
Nor does it create good public relations opportunities back home. Using Mayhew’s (1974) formulation, Members tend to focus on activities that provide opportunities for particularized credit-claiming. Passing a spending bill that funds the military is a good press release, even if you have no military base in your district. Increasing funding for some Leg Branch agency is not.
Even worse, many constituents actively and viscerally dislike the spending in the Leg Branch bill. It’s well-known that Members are terrified of taking votes that can be perceived as spending money on themselves, and it’s not difficult for opponents back home to label the entire Leg Branch bill as Congress spending money on itself. The chair of Leg Branch can try to claim credit for “being a good steward of the people’s money” or “setting an example for the nation,” but there’s no way around that being in charge of a five percent increase for the Members’ Representational Allowance is more likely to lose you votes back home than endear you to your constituents.
Finally, the Leg Branch bill does not offer a lot of opportunities to horse-trade with other Members. This follows in part from its tiny size and lack of impact back home; if there’s nothing in it you can brag about getting for your constituents, there’s certainly not going to be much in it that you can provide other Members to collect chits with. Back in the heyday of earmarks—when the Appropriations committee earned its moniker the “favor factory”—Leg Branch stood out like a sore thumb. In FY2010, Taxpayers for Common Sense identified over 11,000 earmarks totaling over $37 billion in discretionary appropriations bills. Leg Branch had just one earmark, for $200,000. And it was put in the bill on the Senate side.
Similarly, like other subcommittees, Leg Branch still solicits Member requests for funding priorities and administrative language. But these requests rarely contain vital Member needs and produce few opportunities for favors. And despite having the power of the purse over Hill operations, Leg Branch has little direct control over day-to-day Member services. The chair can certainly be helpful if a Member needs some quick action from the Architect of the Capitol or is experiencing a problem with the Sergeant-At-Arms, but the big-ticket Member service issues—like parking—are handled at the Committee on House Administration, where the chair is known as the “Mayor of Capitol Hill.”
These three features of Leg Branch—the small size of the bill, the lack of constituent interest, and the inability to use the chair as a horse-trading power base—make it largely unappealing as a committee assignment. One structural consequence of this is that Leg Branch is less likely than other subcommittees to develop Members with deep, long-term institutional knowledge of the policy area, and rarely does Leg Branch have a chair with significant experience running an appropriations subcommittee. More often, Leg Branch is last priority for its Members, as they have other subcommittee assignments to better allocate their time and personal staff resources.
Likewise, the Leg Branch chair is almost always a first-time appropriations subcommittee chair who is looking to move up as soon as possible to a different subcommittee. It’s the one subcommittee where the running of the subcommittee may not be the first priority of the chair. Usually, the chair rises to the occasion and conducts the business of the subcommittee with distinction, if only to signal that they are capable of managing bigger bills in the future. But, in essence, everyone has one foot out the door at Leg Branch. This makes staffing at Leg Branch—and staff continuity—particularly important.
The consequences for Congress as a whole are familiar ones. The incentives for individual Members do not align-well with the vigorous care and upkeep of the institution. Leg Branch is emblematic of this collective action problem. Absent Members who either find personal satisfaction doing Leg Branch work or altruistically pass up more conventionally valuable appropriations assignments, the subcommittee will not be stocked with experienced, powerful Members who prioritize its business. To the degree that this impedes the development of sound policy, it bodes poorly for Congress as an institution.
Matt Glassman is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute. Formerly, he covered Legislative Branch Operations and Appropriations for the Congressional Research Service, and was detailed to the Legislative Branch Subcommittee during the 111th Congress. You can find him on Twitter @MattGlassman312.