Committee Chairs Move House Leadership to the Right
By Mike Henderson & Martin Johnson
Last week, House Speaker Taylor Barras released his appointments to the chamber’s 16 standing committees, observers noted they signaled more in the way of legislative independence from Gov. John Bel Edwards. Some also charged that they smacked of partisanship, with important money committees, House Appropriations and Ways & Means, staffed with more Republicans.
These appointments are often examined as a signal about the chamber’s policy agenda. As a practical matter, legislation generally does not get a vote in the chamber if it cannot first survive a vote in committee. The chairs in particular wield significant power over the fate of the bills that some before their committee.
Chairs Tilt to the Right
We assess the extent to which these committee chair appointments and membership of the major money committees represent an ideological shift to the right. The data generally suggest that the House may move in a more conservative direction under its new leadership.
Starting with the committee chairs, we compared the ideology for each of the previous and new chairs using data from political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty. Shor and McCarty use roll call voting data on bills considered by state legislatures and the responses of legislative candidates to Project Vote Smart’s National Political Awareness Test to estimate these scores, or “ideal points,” for each legislator in each state from 1993 to 2014.
The figure below plots the ideological swing for each chair appointment in the House. The open circles represent the previous chair and the solids circles represent the new chair. The colors of the circles reflect the party of the chair using the standard Republican red and Democrat blue chromatic scheme. The lines between the open and solid circles indicate the extent of the ideological swing. Shifts to the right appear in pink; shifts to the left in pale blue. The span of the horizontal axis represents the range of ideology in the House from its most liberal member (left end) to its most conservative member (right end). Additionally, we note the position of the median House Democrat and the median House Republican. The committees are ordered from top to bottom by the magnitude of the swing to the right.
Generally, there is a rightward shift in the ideology of committee chairs. There are twice as many red lines (ten) as blue lines (five). One committee (Retirement) retained the same chair so it saw no ideological swing in leadership. The biggest swings to the right occur where Democrat chairs have been replaced with Republican chairs: Civil Law & Procedure; Municipal, Parochial & Cultural Affairs; Transportation, Highways & Public Works; and Agriculture, Forestry, Aquaculture & Rural Development.
Five of the eight chairs that remained in Republican hands after Barras’s appointments also shifted to the right. One committee that still has a Democrat as chair also moved to the right—Labor & Industrial Relations.
Only five of the 16 committees are now led by chairs more liberal than their predecessors. The two committees that switched from a Republican to a Democrat chair fall into this group, but so does one committee that kept a Democrat chair (Judiciary) and two committees that remained under Republican chairs (Administration of Criminal Justice and Health & Welfare).
The general tendency was for committee leadership to move closer to the median Republican in the chamber. In fact, only three of the 16 appointments represent a move further from the median Republican in a conservative direction. More often the move – whether to the right or left – was a move closer to the median Republican in the chamber.
Taken as a whole, the committee leadership better reflects the majority of Republicans in the chamber today than it did last year.
Shifting from the committee chairs to those critical money committees, the second figure here shows how the ideological composition of the House Appropriations Committee changed from last session to the current one. The Shor-McCarty ideal point data contain liberal-conservative ideology estimates for all of the members of the 2015 committee and most of the members who were just appointed by Speaker Barras in 2016.
These curved lines show the distribution of committee members in both years ranging from left (liberal) to right (conservative). The straight vertical lines represent the median committee member. Dashed lines indicate the distribution and median of the 2015 committee and the solid lines represents the current members.
In 2015, we can see conservatives effectively controlled the committee. There is a larger hump on the right side of the distribution than on the left side of the distribution. However, there is also a cluster of left-leaning members of the House on the committee in 2015.
That group of relatively liberal committee members has largely disappeared in the current membership. The 2016 committee contains more members in that conservative, presumably Republican, faction on the committee.
When Appropriations chair state Rep. Cameron Henry warns that Edwards administration proposals to raise revenue will meet opposition from his committee without plans to cut state spending, it’s credible in part because the committee has shifted more to right that it was even under during Gov. Jindal’s last legislative session.
That said, the median position of the committee – the ideological position that cuts the committee in half – has not changed that much, although it has shifted slightly to the right.
However, this graph minimizes the conservative shift on the House Appropriations Committee. We do not have ideology estimates for seven members of the 2016 committee. These are new members elected in 2015 that do not show up in the Shor-McCarty data. They are all Republicans and all likely to hold down ideological ground on the right side of the distribution of members we can show.
A similar dynamic, smaller in magnitude, is at work on the Ways & Means committee, not shown here.
As with the committee chairs, these changes make the money committees more representative of the Republican caucus in the House but do suggest a cause for concern over the possibilities for bipartisan solutions, even as the Republican legislative caucus and Edwards administration publicly express a willingness to work together.