May 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Capitol Hill's smallest committee takes center stage

Illustration of a gavel hitting the floor and generating ripples.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A nine-member committee once seen as a bureaucratic backwater is now at the center of some of the biggest policy fights in Congress.

Why it matters: The House Administration Committee usually wields power quietly, with purview over staff pay and congressional office space.

  • But in a huge change from its traditional role, the "housekeeping committee" is now at the center of several explosive fights — including over voting rights and congressional stock trading — that will be shaped by who controls the House after the midterms.
  • The smallest committee in Congress is also playing a decisive role in the debate on Capitol security — an issue that's taken on new importance after Jan. 6 and the spate of recent mass shootings.

Driving the news: The House sergeant-at-arms, who falls under the committee's oversight purview, revealed his view yesterday that members should be banned from carrying guns in the halls of Congress.

  • "Regrettably, my position on this matter is not shared by all stakeholders," William J. Walker wrote in a letter to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who supports making the Capitol a "gun-free zone."
  • At least eight Republicans have been fined for refusing to pass through magnetometers required to enter the House chamber — a rule instituted after Jan. 6.

Zoom out: The ongoing effort to counter potential active shooter threats is the latest example of a high-profile national issue that touches to some degree on House Administration's jurisdiction.

  • Voting rights is another: Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the committee's ranking member, tells Axios he plans to introduce legislation this year that "ensures states — not unelected federal bureaucrats — maintain primary authority over their election laws as the Constitution requires."
  • Under chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the committee was the tip of the spear for Democrats' sweeping election and campaign finance reform bills, which passed the House but failed to overcome Senate filibusters.
  • The committee has also worked on issues related to cybersecurity and disinformation surrounding U.S. elections, major concerns after Russian meddling efforts in 2016.

More recently, it's considered efforts to crack down on alleged congressional insider trading and spur more personal financial disclosure by federal judges.

  • The Administration Committee was also tasked with navigating COVID protocols for the sprawling Capitol complex, where many offices remain closed.
  • In early 2021, it was also put in the rare position of adjudicating the outcome of a pair of disputed elections — in both cases striking down challenges from defeated House candidates, one Republican and one Democrat.

Lurking behind that hefty legislative agenda was the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the Capitol.

How it works: The committee — made up of six Democrats and three Republicans — has historically been thought of as overseeing the minutiae of operations on the Hill.

  • "You have people come up and [say] their room's too cold and to heat it up, or the mice have infected my office and can you get the staff over there to deal with it," Lofgren told Axios in an interview.
  • But issues like "the assault on voting rights" have become such a flashpoint that it's elevated the committee's work, Lofgren said.

Between the lines: Whether that's affected the committee's ability to tackle its core administrative mandate depends on who you ask.

Committee Republicans say the panel's focus on such high-profile issues has made everyday work more difficult on the historically collaborative and bipartisan panel.

  • "It's become a lot more partisan. And that's unfortunate, but I think the partisanship is reflective of the polarization that we've seen in the Capitol as a whole," Davis said.
  • On some of the more mundane issues central to the committee's jurisdiction, such as the administration of the Capitol complex, the spotlight has made collaboration more difficult, he added.
  • A senior Republican committee aide told Axios the committee has passed 17 pieces of legislation this Congress, compared to 33 during the prior one, and that some issues generally under the Administration Committee's purview have been poached by panels such as the House Modernization Committee.

Democrats say they've been extremely productive beyond the high-profile demands of the last three years and that the committee operates with a rare collegiality.

  • A senior Democratic committee aide pointed to a raft of issues on which it's recently made progress: reforms to rules around paid constituent communications, a pay raise and potential collective bargaining agreements for staffers, a new House whistleblower office and the authorization of two new museums.
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