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The Sausage Factory

House Task Forces to Strengthen Committees, Rank-and-File

On Thursday, February 4, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced the formation of six task forces to assemble an agenda in the areas of national security, tax reform, Federal regulations, healthcare, poverty reduction and free enterprise, and restoring the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative Branches. Ryan’s goal is to not only create a Member-driven agenda for this year, but to get the Republican Conference focused on what they would like to accomplish in the next Congress if a Republican President is elected in November.

Each task force will be made up of chairmen from committees with relevant jurisdictions. For instance, the chairs of the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, Intelligence, Veterans Affairs and House Administration Committees will all serve on the national security task force. The tax reform task force will consist of Chairman Kevin Brady of the Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for taxes.

These six task forces are not entirely new, as past Speakers of the House created them. During the 1980s, Democratic Speakers Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts and Jim Wright of Texas created several task forces—in fact, they created so many that the House Democrats had a “task force coordinator”. At one point, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski complained, “This task force disease has become contagious”.

After the Republicans took control of the House in 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia also created numerous task forces, which studied an array of topics including the budget, drugs, healthcare, Y2K, and one to study how to improve the Republicans’ relations with the entertainment industry. Like the Democratic task forces before them, the Republican groups vexed committee chairmen. The new Judiciary Committee Chairman, the late Henry Hyde said, “I’m really a subchairman.” Speaking about the product of one task force, Chairman Thomas Bliley of the Commerce Committee complained, “This bill, right from the start, was written in the speaker’s office.” One congressional journalist went so far as to write that Gingrich signed the “death warrant” for the committee system with the task forces he created—a debatable assertion, but one that many others have made too. The Speakers following Gingrich, Denny Hastert, Nancy Pelosi, and John Boehner, all created task forces too, although they reportedly relied on them less.

Speaker Ryan is intent on avoiding the past pitfalls where task force are concerned, and it seems they will be less likely to anger Members—or more appropriately, committee chairmen—the way previous panels did. The fact that each task force is made up solely of chairmen testifies to Ryan’s willingness to reinforce their power. Also, all Members of the Republican Conference will be invited to offer their ideas to each of the task forces, helps ensure buy-in by the Conference for the finished recommendations. As a sign of proof, during the press conference in which he announced the creation of the task forces, he referred a reporter to Chairman Mac Thornberry of the House Armed Services Committee, when asked a question on national security policy. “We’re not going to make these decisions in the Speaker’s office”, he said. “I think people are used to the Speaker consolidating power and predetermining the outcome of everything around here. That’s not the kind of Speaker I’m going to be.”

Works Consulted

Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process, 9th edition. (Los Angeles: Sage-CQ Press, 2014).

Oleszek, Walter J. The Use of Task Forces in the House. (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 1999).

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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