Congressional Committees, Time for an Overhaul

In a bit of an afterthought after sidestepping the Fiscal Cliff, Congressional leadership threw out a four year Dairy Supply Management Program (DSMP) that was part of the Farm Bill extension passed by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. With an expected cost of a billion dollars annually and an actual cost likely several times that, taxpayers averted a program that would increase their living costs.

One might logically ask, “Why is the budget so tight that Food Stamp funding is cut back but there are $billions available for programs to raise my grocery costs?” The answer is the outsized power of congressional committees. They set budget and policy priorities and the full House and Senate typically rubber-stamps their work. Unfortunately, congressional committees are not representative of Congress as a whole. This needs fixing.

Representatives from rural districts dominate agriculture committees. No surprise, they pass bills that are popular back home but detrimental to the general population. No wonder Congressional approval ratings are in the teens while 91 percent of incumbents were re-elected in 2012.

Call it an oxymoron. Our government spent $billions over the last 80 years raising farm prices; yet virtually all farmers believe the U.S. has a cheap food policy.  Unfortunately, artificially high prices stimulate extra production, resulting in dramatic price drops. One might think after a few generations we’d figure out the futility of farm market interventions.

 

Not the problem, she can't vote.
Not the problem, she can’t vote.

Committee members supposedly have deep knowledge of issues. This obviously does not preclude saying foolish things. Rep. Colin Peterson, the Ranking House Agriculture Committee Member, stated that government supported milk prices and supply management are, “A solution that will ensure Americans continue to have access to a safe and abundant supply of fresh milk.” Yet, over the last 20 plus years, markets determined milk prices with relatively little government intervention. Somehow, dairy producers met increased demand and 2011 output was 37% over 1990’s level.

Committee assignments are not based on qualifications. Former Rep. Todd Akin, best remembered during his failed Senate campaign for saying, “Women’s bodies have ways to prevent pregnancy in the case of rape”, was a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology member. Another committee member, Rep. Paul Broun, stated, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang Theory—all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” Broun believes Earth is 9,000 years old and there is a scientific plot to hide our planet’s true age.

Special interests achieve results influencing small numbers of committee members. Sometimes, they don’t need influencing. Defense appropriation committees are heavily populated with representatives of areas and states dependent on defense expenditures. While our defense costs are higher than the next seven biggest spending countries combined, for the sake of jobs in the areas they represent, Congressional Committees will fight to preserve as much spending as possible.  The list goes on and on. Committee members overseeing pharmaceuticals receive large campaign donations from companies they oversee. We shouldn’t be surprised prescription drugs are much cheaper outside the U.S.

Summing up…

Congressional committees have century’s old traditions and are ruled by seniority and fiat. If we are serious about passing budgets and policies that are good for the country, preserving the status quo isn’t an option.

Committees aren’t going to fade away, but they might actually be effective if members were selected using a lottery every two years.  The biggest advantages of a rotating structure are a breakdown of the long-term lobbyist/legislator relationships and ending the outsized influence of those with stakes in specific legislation.

Profound changes will occur if legislators with two-year committee tenures are making decisions on national issues having little to do with their own districts.  Voters will judge their representatives based on what they did for the country, not for how well they patronized local voting blocks. Imagine the differences in farm policy if agricultural committee members were mostly from districts made up of consumers instead of producers? A lottery system for committee assignments is the most effective way to reduce special interest influences and make Congress accountable to every voter.

Frugal Ron 2013


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