House Committee Leadership Is About to Get a Lot Less White. What That Means Remains to Be Seen.

A historic number of women and people of color are poised to take the helm of at least eight powerful House committees when the 116th Congress takes shape.

From left, Reps. Maxine Waters, Mark Takano, Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Bennie Thompson. Photos: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images; Zach Gibson/AP; Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP; Mark Wilson/Getty Images

All but two of the 21 House committees are currently chaired by white, male members of Congress. The two exceptions are committees chaired by white women.

That’s all about to change.

With Democrats having seized control of the House of Representatives, a historic number of women and people of color are poised to take the helm of at least eight powerful committees when the 116th Congress takes shape. Some of these chair positions would be held for the first time by a woman or a person of color.

New York Rep. Nita Lowey on the Appropriations committee, Virginia’s Bobby Scott on Education and Workforce, California’s Maxine Waters on Financial Services, Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson on Homeland Security, Arizona’s Raúl Grijalva on Natural Resources, Maryland’s Elijah Cummings on Oversight and Government Reform, Texas’s Eddie Bernice Johnson on Science, Space, and Technology, and New York’s Nydia Velázquez on Small Business all hold the position of ranking member on their respective committees.

California Rep. Mark Takano, vice ranking member of Veterans’ Affairs, has announced his bid to chair the committee. He’s been endorsed by ranking member Tim Walz — now Minnesota’s governor-elect — who’s retiring at the end of the year.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California is vice ranking member on both the Administration and Judiciary committees; she’s positioned to chair Administration following the retirement of Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Brady.

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn announced Wednesday that he’d run again for majority whip, a seat he held from 2007 to 2011. And Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said he’d run to replace Clyburn as assistant Democratic leader.

Also contested is the coveted leadership position as chair of the Democratic Caucus. Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Hakeem Jeffries of New York are in the running to replace Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, who earlier this year lost his re-election bid to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 26: Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., participates in a press conference on medical cannabis research reform on Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., at a press conference on medical cannabis research reform on April 26, 2018.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP

“That’s gonna be a really competitive race,” lobbyist Mike Williams told The Intercept.

Williams is a partner with United by Interest, a lobbying firm started earlier this year to leverage the growing size and influence of groups like the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses, in the service of corporate clients, both of which are being bolstered by the record number of women and people of color entering Congress. UBI recently signed with the American Petroleum Institute, the lobby for Big Oil.

As for who else he thinks might pitch a run to lead the Democratic Caucus, “That is the $64,000 question,” Williams said. “I think everybody’s holding their cards close to the vest because they want to figure out what’s up for grabs, and what deals are gonna get cut.”

Those dynamics are becoming increasingly complicated as the caucuses are set to pull more weight in the next session. Those competing influences will play a role in how minority leader Nancy Pelosi positions herself in the fight, Williams said. Pelosi is confident in her path to the speakership despite a significant number of the freshman class who have said they won’t support her.

“Maybe she wants to throw her weight in behind somebody else at a different caucus’s behest,” Williams told The Intercept. “All of those things are in play right now.”

Williams, for his part, is joining other lobbyists seeking to make the most of the growing potential in both caucuses. While Williams plans to lobby the CBC for the American Petroleum Institute, another firm, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, is forging a connection to the caucus in partnership with former Missouri state Rep. Don Calloway and his firm, Pine Street Strategies. The firm represents the Environmental Defense Fund, but also a slew of corporate clients, including the National Bankers Association, a lobbying group for minority and women-owned business.

K Street firms have long employed lobbyists they call “CBC specialists,” whose mission is to find CBC members willing to sign onto legislation, or letters to regulatory agencies, and give progressive cover to a corporate agenda. Many of the members of the incoming class of freshmen, however, have vowed not to take corporate PAC money and made cleaning up Washington central parts of their campaigns. What comes of the collision between those twin dynamics will determine what the next House is able to produce legislatively.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., center, speaks at a Congressional Tri-Caucus news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, on injustice and inequality in America. The Congressional Tri-Caucus is comprised of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Cedric Richmond, center, speaks at a Congressional Tri-Caucus news conference in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27, 2017.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

A Failure to Reflect Constituents

Committee chairs are less powerful than they once were, but the person with the gavel still sets the agenda and determines which bills to consider, what issues to hold hearings on, and who will testify at those hearings. In some cases, they have subpoena power. House Democrats have said they won’t hold leadership elections until after December 5, but women and people of color are slowly building momentum to expand their stake in the chamber. Unless their colleagues launch challenges, legislators in the position of ranking member or with the most seniority usually ascend to chair without issue. Pelosi has said she doesn’t anticipate any deviations this year from the standard process, according to Democratic committee staffers.

The current Congress is already the most diverse in history, across both chambers — if you don’t count legislative staffers. Only six out of 40 top House aides aren’t white, according to a September report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank focused on issues impacting communities of color. In 2015, the center found similarly poor showings among Senate staffers, underscoring a persistent inability within the legislative branch, regardless of party, to build offices that reflect both the country and constituents.

But the next Congress stands to break new records. And members are itching for change.

On November 1, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Cedric Richmond, called for an African-American representative to take “at least one of the top two positions of elected House Democratic leadership,” i.e., House speaker or majority leader. House leadership has not directly addressed the request since the chamber flipped Tuesday.

The letter was initially reported as representing the views of the CBC as a whole, but it was a solo letter sent from Richmond’s office.

Clyburn’s campaign also distributed materials this week outlining his strategy to build “a new model for African-American engagement and turnout, initially deployed in special elections in 2017, including for Doug Jones’s historic victory in the Alabama Senate race.” Clyburn is the only one of the top three in leadership positions to have so far drawn a challenger, Rep. Diana Degette, D-Colo.

Congressional leaders and aides interviewed by The Intercept say they want to push for stronger oversight of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, compelling secretaries to attend more hearings on issues ranging from the influence of industry at the Department of Interior to the Department of Education’s regulation of for-profit institutions. Staffers say they’ll also advance issues related to sexual harassment in the workplace, workforce development, health care access, raising the minimum wage, climate change and environmental justice, and Indian country.

UNITED STATES - JULY 25: Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, attend a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing titled "James Webb Space Telescope: Program Breach and its Implications," in Rayburn Building on July 25, 2018. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and Tom Young, chairman of the JWST Independent Review Board, testified. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Chair Lamar Smith, R-Texas, right, and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, attend a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on July 25, 2018.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP

Breaking New Ground

If Barbara Lee is elected to lead the Democratic Caucus, she would be the first woman of color to ever hold the position. (Rep. Linda T. Sánchez withdrew her bid Thursday after a federal grand jury in Connecticut indicted her husband, James Sullivan, for allegedly stealing federal grant money.)

Similar firsts are expected throughout the chamber.

Eddie Bernice Johnson would be the first person of color, and the first woman, to chair the Science, Space, and Technology committee. She pushed a bill earlier this year to address sexual harassment in STEM fields, and plans to improve STEM education for women and minorities to create a stronger pipeline into the industry.

“It’s been a big deal for her, her whole career,” an aide told The Intercept, referencing discrimination Johnson faced as a black nursing student. As a young woman, she was barred from attending nursing school in her hometown of Waco, Texas, because of her race. “She’s always tried to make sure that underrepresented groups drive U.S. innovation.”

Nita Lowey would be the first woman and the first Jewish person to chair the Appropriations committee. “She has served in Congress for quite a while now. And she’s been on the committee for 26 years,” an aide said in a phone interview with The Intercept. Lowey oversaw foreign assistance as chair of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee from 2006 to 2010.

In addition to negotiating a new two-year deal to lift budgetary restrictions imposed by the 2011 sequestration, Lowey wants to reverse the efforts of the current majority to use “appropriations bills as a way to limit women’s access to reproductive health care, defund Planned Parenthood, cut Title X family planning, [and] reduce resources for teen pregnancy prevention.”

“I think with her in the chair, that stops,” the aide said. “We’ll write bills that instead actually promote women’s access to health care. And that would include internationally.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) speaks during a news conference regarding the separation of immigrant children at the U.S. Capitol on July 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. A court order issued June 26 set a deadline of July 10 to reunite the roughly 100 young children with their parents. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., speaks on the separation of immigrant families during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 10, 2018.

Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Industry in Charge

As chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Raúl Grijalva, a former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says he would use the legal tools at his disposal to hold Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke accountable for ongoing ethics scandals surrounding his office, something he says his colleagues in the majority have failed to do.

“Me being a Latino in charge of the environment, I think 10 years ago that would have been unheard of,” Grijalva told The Intercept in a phone interview. “It’s a positive, and I think, in the long term, a very integrative and educational experience for the American public. Because people of color and women can chew gum and walk at the same time.”

Grijalva easily won his district, which he’s led since 2003. His opponent, Nick Pierson, a former financial adviser to the health insurance industry, said Grijalva was “not a good example of a Mexican.” Both are of Mexican descent.

Grijalva is unopposed in his path to chair the committee, which he says “has deteriorated” over the past two years “from a coequal branch that does oversight, that pushes on accountability, to basically just being there as cheerleaders for the administration, and for Zinke in particular.” He called out the Interior secretary for replacing career professionals with key advisers from the gas, oil, and mining extraction industries.

Chairing the committee would be an opportunity “to be strong about demanding information,” Grijalva said. That includes “Zinke on one end,” as well as “what I perceive to be conflicts of interest throughout that department in terms of who makes decisions. And some level of corruption that hasn’t been truly clarified. So, we have to look at that.”

“The oversight that the majority has done has been about how horrible the Endangered Species Act [is]. That’s not oversight,” he added.

Grijalva criticized his Republican colleagues for not taking seriously mounting ethics questions clouding the Interior Department. He said the minority had to initiate investigations into Zinke’s Montana land deal with Halliburton chair David J. Lesar. “We had to raise the issue,” he said, “and then asking the inspector general, who then referred it to Justice. And that was work we had to do on our own. That shouldn’t be the case.”

He also raised questions about little-understood plans to reorganize the department — “some whim of Zinke’s,” according to Grijalva.

“He has not provided to the minority, or I’m assuming to the majority either, what the rationale is, what the cost is, what the impact is, how it’s gonna work. And we want to revisit that before any effort is made to fund that,” Grijalva said.

“My belief is that that’s industry that’s in charge right now of the Interior Department. Industry has a role, but they don’t have the sole role. And right now they have the sole role.”

On the policy side, Grijalva said, he wants to focus on “how we build the budget for Interior. How we reclaim the conservation ethic for our public lands and waters. And conservation extending to species and to the public process which is NEPA,” referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, which Grijalva described as “deteriorating and undercut now for two years.” He has criticized Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah, for proposing that NEPA’s environmental review requirements be waived to expedite recovery efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The congressman said the committee has also supported “the dumbing down of science.”

“If you look at the mission statement and the goals of the majority this previous session, the word climate change was scrubbed from the whole thing,” he told The Intercept.

“We’re dealing with issues of the environment, of our land and our water, of our species,” Grijalva said. “That requires science and fact. And certainly the idea of climate change, and what role the public assets of land and water play in mitigating and adaptation for that.”

As the committee stands now, “We have one mission for our public lands and public assets including water. And that is extraction, and nothing else,” Grijalva said. “It’s always been a multimission, multipurpose idea that this committee has worked on, and I want to get back to that.”

Grijalva also plans to work with the House Energy and Commerce committee on various environmental justice issues, including restoring the land removed from Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument — which the state itself supports — and protecting the federal ban on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, a measure the Supreme Court recently declined to review.

The Arizona congressman said that as chair, he would also heighten the profile of Native constituents in his district, nearly half of which is on Native American tribal land. “I think they’ve been diminished in status, and we want to raise that back up again,” Grijalva told The Intercept. He wants to bring the committee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs to its full capacity at 56 staff members — it currently has only 26.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) speaks during a news conference held by House Democrats condemning the Trump Administration's targeting of the Affordable Care Act's pre-existing condition, in the US Capitol on June 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images)

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., at a news conference held by House Democrats condemning the Trump administration’s targeting of the Affordable Care Act on June 13, 2018.

Photo: Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images

Increasing Cabinet Oversight

Bobby Scott would be the third African-American to chair the Education and Workforce committee, following two pioneering civil rights leaders. New York Democrat Adam Clayton Powell, whose parents were of multiracial heritage, chaired the Committee on Education and Labor in 1961, which predated the committee as established in its current form. Augustus F. Hawkins, California’s first black member of Congress, chaired that same committee from 1984 to 1991.

When you have a “more diverse group of people at the table, you tend to get better policy,” a Scott aide told The Intercept during a phone interview. Scott’s office said he would take a strong stance against the Trump administration’s approach to for-profit education if elected chair.

“I would expect a great degree of oversight in that area,” the aide said, criticizing “a long track record, both among congressional Republicans and the Trump administration, of prioritizing these for-profit institutions over the students that too often are harmed by predatory behavior.”

In December 2017, the committee majority proposed the PROSPER Act, a measure that would cut $15 billion in student federal lending programs and reduce regulations on for-profit institutions, according to a February analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

“There are a number of senior officials in the Trump administration who have come from for-profit institutions, or for-profit lobbying companies” the aide continued, “and there’s a conflict of interest angle there.” The committee has only called Education Secretary Betsy DeVos before one hearing this year.

The committee is also tasked with leading the charge to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. That means allocating future federal funding for colleges and universities and tackling the second worst segment of consumer debt in the country: federal student loans.

At the K-12 level, Scott’s constituents can expect continued pressure on the Department of Education to comply with Obama-era federal laws holding states accountable for addressing the achievement gap, his office said. He also wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025.

As the first woman to chair the Financial Services committee, Maxine Waters would prioritize heavier regulations on the financial industry, her office said, along with issues of affordable housing and homelessness. Over the past several terms, she has battled with other members of the CBC who serve on the committee and are closer to banking interests, over the committee’s direction.

Bennie Thompson’s office doesn’t expect a challenge to his path to chair the Homeland Security committee. He was the first person of color to chair the committee from 2007 to 2010. He’s also the only Democrat from Mississippi.

His office criticized Republicans on the committee for lack of oversight, something they say Thompson will change in the next session. Topics to watch in hearings that could start as early as February include immigration, disaster response, and election security.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 27: House Small Business Committee Ranking Member Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) speaks during a House Small Business Committee hearing on President Donald Trump's ban of Chinese Telecom Maker ZTE on Capitol Hill  June 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Ranking member Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., speaks during a House Small Business Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 27, 2018.

Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Nydia Velázquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, is next in line to lead the Small Business committee, which she chaired from 2007 to 2011. “The congresswoman has made it no secret she plans to run for chair of the committee,” an aide wrote in an email to The Intercept, adding that Velázquez would “continue working to expand inclusiveness and diversity on the committee and to promote those goals in terms of small business policy.”

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., is in line to be chair of the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees the federal courts, and he has pledged to continue to investigate whether Brett Kavanaugh committed perjury during his confirmation process, or continue to probe areas where the Trump administration and Senate Republicans stopped short, he told The Intercept.

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia is ranking member on the Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight, where he’s been vocal this year on redesigning the IRS. His office declined to discuss any pursuit of the chair position.

Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois is in line to chair the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on information technology. That’s only if she doesn’t end up moving to the Energy and Commerce committee to focus on her office’s priorities in STEM and workforce development, according to Communications Director James Lewis.

IT is currently the only House committee in which both the chair and ranking member are people of color — should Kelly take the chair position, she’d be replacing Texas Republican Will Hurd.

“That would be pretty significant, given all the conversation around tech diversity and inspiring women and people of color to go into STEM,” Lewis told The Intercept in a phone interview.

As chair, Kelly would focus on the role that Facebook and Russian-backed hackers played in the 2016 presidential election.

“We work really well with Mr. Hurd. We don’t think the problem is Mr. Hurd. We think it’s his bosses,” Lewis explained, referring to Rep. Trey Gowdy, chair of Oversight and Government Reform. Kelly and Hurd both agree that workforce training is necessary to grow jobs in an economy in which artificial intelligence plays a larger role.

As chair of the Veterans’ Affairs committee, Mark Takano would continue to bring attention to the issue of veterans deported from the United States, which is poorly understood, his office says, because there isn’t much data. Takano wants to make sure the changing population of veterans, which each year includes more women and minorities, has appropriate services to address their needs. He also plans to target deficient oversight of for-profit educational institutions that prey upon veterans as part of his joint work on the Education and Workforce committee.

Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush is expected to chair the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy, where he is currently vice ranking member, spokesperson Ryan Johnson wrote in an email to The Intercept. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., will chair the committee.

Rush’s office said he plans to work on clean and sustainable energy technology, particularly in rural communities, and moving an infrastructure package to improve the electric grid and upgrade old water pipes made of lead, as well as natural gas pipelines. “His other priorities would include promoting a 21st-century energy workforce that reflects the diversity of the nation, and highlighting the economic benefits, as well as the positive national security implications, of addressing the issue of climate change,” Johnson wrote.

Elijah Cummings, positioned to chair the committee on Oversight and Government Reform, did not respond to requests for comment. His office put out a statement Wednesday indicating plans to “investigate the real reason” for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s termination the day after the midterm elections.

Correction: November 12, 2018
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott would be the second African-American to chair the House Committee on Education and the Workforce; he would be the third.

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