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The Benghazi-fication of the House of Representatives

The congressional battle between radicals and institutionalists reflects and reinforces divides of race, ideology, and region.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Among the many subplots in the House Benghazi Committee's 11-hour grilling of Hillary Clinton two weeks ago was the undisguised animosity between the committee's Republican and Democratic members — led by Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the Republican chair who reached the House just five years ago by primarying a conservative Republican from the right; and Elijah Cummings, the baritoned ranking Democrat, who has represented Baltimore, Maryland, and an adjoining county for two decades. While most investigative committees adopt at least the patina of bipartisan cooperation in an earnest search for truth, the Benghazi committee has been visibly battling within itself for many months, through vicious letters, leaks and counterleaks, motions to release testimony, and even forgery.

It's fair to say that Cummings and the Democrats have been pushing to respect the basic rules of an investigative committee while the majority has been pushing beyond the limits. In some ways, this dynamic is built into the explicitly partisan mission of the Benghazi committee. But then I read David Roberts's excellent reporting here on the House Committee on Science and Technology, which, as he puts it, is "even worse than the Benghazi committee" but displays a very similar dynamic — unprecedented mischief, as the committee subpoenas and harasses scientists and bureaucrats without evidence or reason, aiming to spread doubt about climate change, while the ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, tries valiantly to preserve respect for institutional norms.

While most committees are not as fraught as these two, the basic pattern can be seen across eight major House committees — a very conservative chair, almost always Southern, often with little experience, matched with an African-American ranking Democrat, usually with far longer tenure in the House. (Since 1995, Republicans have deemphasized seniority in choosing committee chairs; fundraising and loyalty play a larger role. With rare exceptions, Democrats have continued to reward seniority.) Besides the Benghazi and science committees, the committees that fit this description include:

  • Financial Services, chaired by Jeb Hensarling of Texas, elected in 2003 and more conservative than all but 12 other members, according to the last available rankings from National Journal, which cover 2013. The ranking member is Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, who has been in office 25 years.
  • Homeland Security. The chair is Michael McCaul, another Texan, extremely conservative, elected in 2004. His Democratic counterpart is Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, elected 12 years earlier.
  • Judiciary. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia is matched with Detroit's John Conyers. When Conyers won his first election in 1964, only seven African Americans had been elected to the House in the 20th century, three of them from a single district in Chicago.
  • Oversight. This one looks a lot like the Benghazi committee, and shares some members, but Jason Chaffetz of Utah is the chair and Cummings the ranking Democrat.
  • Veterans Affairs. Floridians Jeff Miller and Corinne Brown are the chair and ranking Democrat.
  • Education and the Workforce. The current chair, John Kline of Minnesota, is among the chamber's most moderate Republicans, and is widely respected. But he's retiring and his presumed successor, Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, best known for declaring that because she had worked her way through college, she had "little tolerance" for graduates with student loan burdens, is much more conservative. The ranking Democrat is Bobby Scott of Virginia, another veteran.

Not all the Republicans are extreme conservatives (Goodlatte and Miller are not), and as far as I can find, most committees are not riven by quite the internal battles of Benghazi and science, but the underlying pattern is similar. It might be tempting to think of this as a story of symmetric polarization, presuming that the African-American Democrats are as far to the left as the Southern white chairs are to the right. But that's not the case at all. While the first modern cohort of black members of Congress included urban firebrands like Conyers and Waters, by the 1980s and 1990s, black members elected from smaller cities and rural areas have been much more moderate. Scott, Johnson, and Brown all fall close to the midpoint of House Democrats by ranking, while Thompson is more conservative than 148 other Democrats, putting him close to the right end of the party, along with the few remaining white Democrats from the South. (I've also linked each name to the member's page on govtrack.us, which includes a map situating each member's ideology using a measure of bills he or she has co-sponsored, which can sometimes be more accurate than voting scores.)

Not only is their ideology far from the margins, but their approach to governing is collaborative and often formal, reflecting the norms that they absorbed during decades of waiting their turn. Consider, for example, this description of Waters's leadership on the Financial Services Committee, by Ryan Grim and Zach Carter, writing in the New Republic: She "worked within the system, cutting deals, casting a few pro-bank votes, and generally not comporting herself like a bomb-thrower." They are patient institutionalists, and generally represent constituencies that fundamentally need government to work and don't have time for posturing and shutdown threats. The divide between radicals and institutionalists is as profound as the ideological or racial splits on these committees — but it also reinforces those other divides, both in Congress and in the political culture more broadly.

This should be a historic moment for black political leadership in the US, as the doors opened 50 years ago by the Voting Rights Act finally pay off in seniority and institutional power. Instead, these members find themselves in the uncomfortable position of protecting the fundamental rules of the institution against an intractable, radical majority bent on undermining the fundamental rules of the institution. At its best, politics can cross over racial, regional, and ideological divides, but the showdown between radicals and institutionalists seems only to exacerbate those splits.