Kagan Nomination Raising Concerns Among Liberal Democrats

Washington Report: Updates From the Capitol

Fattah’s Plight for Head of Committee May Devalue Seniority System


Could Rep. Chaka Fattah‘s attempt to leap frog to the top of the House Appropriations Committee weaken the Congressional Black Caucus’s power? Last week the Philadelphia lawmaker announced plans to run for the chair of the powerful spending panel–in spite of the fact that he ranks 21st on its seniority roster.

But the CBC also is heavily invested in the seniority system that has enabled them to rise to the top of three committees and 18 subcommittees. Even when their party was in the minority, they still wielded influence on legislation based on seniority.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said that while he respects the right of Fattah and every member to pursue such leadership positions, the seniority system has been of significant benefit to the CBC.

If it’s ignored, he added, “You run the risk of people wanting to do away with it and to say, we didn’t follow it with that race and therefore we ought to throw it out.”

Fattah said that he, too, is a “totally a supporter and beneficiary” of the seniority system and noted that he’s poised to lead the panel’s Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies subcommittee because its top two members will not return in the next Congress. But he’s also unwilling to give up what is gearing up to become a battle between himself and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Washington), the committee’s number two member.

“I’m not a freshman and have been here 16 years. I’m offering myself as a candidate, but I’m going to live with the result of the decision of the entire [Democratic] caucus,” said Fattah. He pointed to the seniority rule being broken on Appropriations and most recently when fellow CBC member Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) was forced to give up his Ways and Means gavel. And he’s right, but his argument is weakened by the fact that Dicks is neither in fragile health or prone to sparking controversy as was the case in those situations.