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The following exchange between PBS's Geoff Bennett and Lisa Desjardin caught my attention (somewhat after 07:30) in the January 3, 2022 piece House adjourns until Wednesday after McCarthy fails to win enough votes to become Speaker:

DESJARDINS: ...Right now, it really is a game of chicken, neither side blinking.

BENNETT: Well, to the extent that anyone knows, I mean, based on your reporting, what happens next?

DESJARDINS: OK, so there are a few scenarios that can happen. I think that this divide is so great that it actually will be hard to solve by tomorrow morning. That is possible, however. Conservatives, those holdouts, want things like the ability to get onto top committees without reaching a certain fund-raising goal. Right now, you have to bring in a certain amount of donations, frankly, to get some top positions. They want that to change.

I would think that committee appointments would be assigned on some kind of merit-based system; perhaps "consensus builder" or "legislative skills and/or output".

The highlighted line by journalist Desjardin suggests that for at least some committee appointments in the US House of Representatives, and at least for one party if not both, one needs to "bring in a certain amount of donations", and I have a hunch - though I don't know - that those donations need to make their way to the party coffers (e.g. RNC/DNC) not just to the representative themselves.

I'm curious to find out:

  1. if this is indeed so ("Say it ain't so Joe, say it ain't so!)
  2. to what extent it is so, within each party
  3. to what extent it is explicit and/or codified vs unwritten/unacknowledged but understood
  4. do the funds raised need to make it to something like a party organization (e.g. RNC/DNC) or can they remain in the individual's campaign finances once demonstrated
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    This question cannot be answered objectively because no sitting politician is ever going to admit that the amount of funds raised for their party is taken into to consideration for what, as you rightly point out, should be purely merit-based appointments (where "merit" does not include "money"). Therefore the only answers will either be conjecture, or past experience which in today's politics may no longer be correct. Therefore this question should be closed.
    – Ian Kemp
    Jan 4, 2023 at 13:17
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    @IanKemp I'm always amazed how any one person can know a priori the sum total of what every other user may know. Just because you don't know the answer personally, and don't personally think that any "sitting politician is ever going to admit" something doesn't mean you are right. It's much better to wait and see what answers show up, rather than pre-block the entire community from any opportunity to post an answer; unless, perhaps, your goal is to make sure some information doesn't ever make it into an answer...
    – uhoh
    Jan 4, 2023 at 13:51
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    @Trilarion My question clearly asks about both parties (read the post!); please don't change my question and make it partisan. I include an extensive block quote for context and a link to it as well, so everyone can see what the quote is about, but my question is about both parties. Further, since there are two thoghtful answers posted already, you should know that changing the question now is not done lightly or "to taste".
    – uhoh
    Jan 4, 2023 at 22:53
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    Sorry, my fault. I thought the emphasis is on the truth of the partisan statement. I should be more careful in the future. Jan 5, 2023 at 4:35
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    @IanKemp Well, we'll see how correct you are in your more restricted claim, but your implication that the only useful evidence is an admission from a sitting politician about himself is 100% wrong logic. There are plenty of other sources, such as retired politicians, non-politician sources that work or have worked in or near Congress, sources that have overheard private conversations, and so on.
    – cjs
    Jan 5, 2023 at 5:34

3 Answers 3

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if this is indeed so ("Say it ain't so Joe, say it ain't so!)

As a strictly technical matter it isn't true. Committee assignments are made by House leadership for a party with the approval of the members of their party.

to what extent it is explicit and/or codified vs unwritten/unacknowledged but understood

This is not a formal actual requirement. It is not in the House rules or in the written party rules. It is a norm among members of Congress of one of the things that is considered relevant (among many issues) in making committee assignments.

to what extent it is so, within each party

I can't answer this subquestion with any great precision because my first hand experience is dated and because the dynamics of the parties is in flux.

House Democrats have tended to care more about seniority than fundraising at the committee assignment level.

In the days of the "Contract With America" that the GOP advanced in 1994 there was emphasis in the GOP on making decisions on committee chairs and leadership positions based upon the votes and preferences of rank and file members of the the GOP Congressional caucus as a departure from seniority. But this has evolved over time.

do the funds raised need to make it to something like a party organization (e.g. RNC/DNC) or can they remain in the individual's campaign finances once demonstrated

In this context, donations delivered to the National Republican Congressional Committee (not necessarily personally made but raised), and the Republican National Committee (RNC) would be the biggest considerations and funds raised for one's own campaign wouldn't matter much. Securing political action committee (PAC) support for Republicans running for Congress other than yourself would also help. The concept is that you win support in the caucus by going the extra mile to help your peers get elected.

But, of course, this isn't the only way to get power in Congress. If you are the holdout swing vote, the party will do a lot to win your support in a way that it wouldn't if you were a reliable party line voters in Congress, but might also not trust you with hardline partisan issues. Loyal party line Republicans gets sets on committees like the Judiciary Committee. Swing voters gets seats on committees like the Appropriations committees that allow them to bring home pork, but give them less influence over partisan policymaking.

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ohwilleke's answer is entirely correct. But I think it would be helpful to look at why committee assignments are such a big deal in the first place.

The US Congress is structured differently from a typical parliamentary body. Leadership cannot do any of the following to keep party members in line:

  • Offer or withhold cabinet positions (it is unconstitutional for a sitting Congress member to hold a cabinet position).
    • In the long run, such positions can eventually be used to reward loyalists, but at that point, they're no longer members of Congress because they need to resign to accept such a position. Also, such positions are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, so it may or may not be feasible for a given party at a given time.
  • Designate confidence motions and/or hold snap elections (there is no such thing as confidence, and elections are held at fixed intervals).
  • Withdraw the whip from a member (candidates are selected by voters, not party leadership, and for the most part, candidates can run as whatever party they want).

Conversely, party leadership in the US has some levers of power that may feel unfamiliar to those more accustomed to parliaments:

  • There are no opposition days or private member's bills. For the most part, leadership has total control of the political calendar, so if you want some pet bill to get to the floor, you need them to go along with it, or you need to tack it onto a "must pass" bill. This requires an amendment, which is most commonly done in committee (see below).
    • In order to make either of those things happen, you either need a good working relationship with party leadership, or you need to make concessions on some related issue. Party discipline can be maintained on a bill-by-bill basis in some situations, but this can become pretty transactional and messy if different members want different things.
  • Congressional committees have considerable influence, because they can take a bill and sit on it if the chair does not want it to become law. In most cases, this effectively kills the bill. Committees also hold hearings, which can provide a useful vehicle for scoring political points, mark up (amend) bills, and otherwise serve to control the flow of the legislative process.
    • Committee positions are handed out by party leadership on both sides (the party in majority gets half+1, including the chair, the other party gets the rest). Therefore, committee positions are used as a primary means of maintaining party discipline over the course of an entire congressional term, and so it is not terribly surprising to hear a politician speak frankly about the need for fundraising or other pro-party activities in order to secure a position. If you misbehave, you won't get the committee position you've been working towards next term (but you'll probably keep your existing position, unless things got really heated).
    • In principle, a discharge petition can be used to force a bill to the floor for a vote (removing it from committee). While this only requires a simple majority, it is rare for party discipline to break down to such a degree that a discharge petition succeeds. This is mostly limited to the House, but it can be done in the Senate for Congressional Review Act disapproval motions.
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Bob Ney (R), head of the House Administration Committee from 2001 through 2006, claimed this to be the case in a interview:

Jones: What’s your view on SuperPACs?

Ney: They’re outrageous. It’s happening on both sides. I’m fair about it, I mention Soros, Koch and Karl Rove.

The other thing nobody talks about in this city is, I was directly told “You want to be chairman of House Administration, you want to continue to be chairman.” They would actually put in writing that you have to raise $150,000. They still do that – Democrats and Republicans. If you want to be on this committee, it can cost you $50,000 or $100,000 – you have to raise that money in most cases.

("Former Rep Bob Ney Says Washington Is Still Highly Corrupt," Victoria Jones, Talk Radio News Service 2013-03-06)

That Ney was corrupt seems to have been well known even before he was found to be involved in the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal. His opinion preceding the scandal seems to have been that corruption of this sort was so commonplace that it was unlikely he would be caught or punished. He later plead guilty to criminal charges and served 30 months in prison. The above interview occurred several years after he had been released and finished his probation.

(Ney was also famed for campaigning to have have french fries renamed "freedom fries.")

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