More on Senate committees and a non-caucusing member

Full disclosure: I am not a registered member of any political party. I voted for Evan McMullin for president in 2016; I have never voted for Mike Lee and do not expect that I will vote for him this year. My interest in writing this article is to communicate facts about which I have some expertise, not to score political points.

Earlier in this space I explained how Evan McMullin’s pledge not to caucus with either party if elected to the Senate would leave him with no committee assignments. The recap is that committee assignments are made by resolution adopted by the whole Senate, and unless McMullin caucuses with their party neither party leader is likely to include him in its party’s committee membership resolution.

But that is not the end of the problem. This is perhaps inside baseball, and the details are hard to forecast, but Senate party partisan distribution affects committees in ways not evident to the average citizen, and perhaps not known to McMullin himself.

Briefly stated, committee ratios are set to reflect the partisan balance of the Senate. If the Democrats have 60% of the seats in the Senate, they will have 60% of the seats on every committee. In a 50-50 Senate, committee membership would be equal.

But suppose a Senate composed of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one Independent, Evan McMullin’s avowed aim. McMullin’s refusal to caucus with the Republicans could cost them a seat on every committee. This is not a scenario that would endear him to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or to any Republican who lost a committee slot as a result. 

Committee ratios also have important consequences for staffing and funding ratios. In a 50-50 Senate, staff positions would also be divided 50-50. (Well, actually not quite 50-50; with Kamala Harris as Vice-President, the Chair of each committee (and subcommittee) would be a Democrat, who would see to it that the Ds got at least an extra staffer or two.)

Other staff resources are also allocated on this basis. Without McMullin, the Republicans would have less money to bring in witnesses, engage in committee-related travel, or hold regional hearings.

These implications would be felt even if one party or the other had a majority without McMullin. His refusal would “cost” one of the parties, and benefit the other. Suppose a Senate with 52 Democrats, 47 Republicans and McMullin. McMullin’s refusal to caucus with the Democrats means a ratio reflecting lower Democratic strength, meaning that the Republicans would get more members, more committee staff slots and more committee funding that they would if McMullin caucused with the Democrats. That is not a scenario likely to endear him to Schumer.

Yes, under this scenario McMullin’s status would benefit the Republicans (tho not as much as a caucus vote would), but remember that it is the majority party that reigns in the Senate, and making the Majority Leader mad has consequences that pleasing the Minority Leader can’t offset.

With respect to the work of those committees, since McMullin would not be on them, he would have no influence on whom the committees invited as witnesses in hearings, and no opportunity to question them. Nor would he have access to committee staff in drafting legislation, or preparing reports on hearings. He would have to rely on personal staff to draft legislation and amendments, assisted by the Office of Legislative Counsel (whose work is excellent, but never complete).

Senators do often testify before committees, and McMullin could seek to testify, to explain his position on legislation before the committee. His importance for floor votes in a closely-divided Senate might actually earn him an opportunity to testify, but that would be entirely at the sufferance of the committee chair, and of course he would have no vote on committee amendments or on whether or not a bill was reported to the full Senate for a vote.

Let’s look quickly at what we know will be the result of a McMullin victory and a refusal to caucus with either party.

Mike Lee sits on the following committees:

  • Judiciary 
  • Energy and Natural Resources 
  • Commerce
  • Joint Economic Committee
  • Special Committee on Aging

That means that Utah is represented on those committees as well, and while four of the five have general responsibilities, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is vital to Utah. Utah is a “public lands” state, with about two-thirds of the land area controlled directly by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, or the National Park Service. McMullin’s strategy would immediately deprive Utah of a defensive bulwark against control by eastern interests that have tended to treat the West as a play ground, since they don’t live here. It is hard to think of a public lands issue in which Lee’s membership on Energy and Natural Resources has not been critical.

True, Mitt Romney could move to Natural Resources, but it is not clear that he wants to or would succeed; even if he did, his lack of seniority would be debilitating.

To recapitulate: a decision not to caucus with either party has ramifications both deep and broad, with impacts on the quality of representation of his constituents that Evan McMullin does not seem so far to appreciate.

Gordon S. Jones is a registered Independent who spent 30 years in Washington, D.C., primarily working with Congress, in which context he taught staff classes on Senate procedure. He now lives in Utah where he is a founder and faculty member of Mount Liberty College.