No Experience Required as 18 Freshmen Lead House Subcommittees

  • Freshmen awarded almost all the gavels on three committees
  • Conor Lamb most experienced among Science panel chiefs

House freshmen harvested a bumper crop of 18 subcommittee chairs as Democratic leaders face pressure to give opportunities to the newcomers who put them in the majority.

Freshmen hold four of the five subcommittee chairmanships on the Small Business; Veterans’ Affairs; and Science, Space and Technology committees. The fifth subcommittee gavel on Science-Space went to a Democrat with less than a year of experience: Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who took office last March after winning a special election.

The Homeland Security and Natural Resources committees each have two freshmen in charge of subcommittees.

The assignments helped Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) fulfill promises about greater rank-and-file participation that she made while campaigning to win the speakership.

Reps. Spanberger, Rose, Torres Small, Cox, Haaland, Rouda.

“Part of it is a supply issue’’ to fill vacancies on committees where Democrats now have many more seats, said Charles Finocchiaro, a University of Oklahoma political scientist. “Part of this is a nod on the part of the speaker in building that coalition to be elected speaker.”

“I do understand that the speaker guided freshmen onto committees very strategically so that they would find themselves with chairmanship opportunities,” said John Lawrence, Pelosi’s chief of staff during her first tour of duty as speaker.

For decades, first-termers were expected to sit, watch, and learn.

Only one Democrat in the storied “Watergate babies’’ class that was elected in 1974 after scandal hounded President Richard Nixon from office received a subcommittee gavel, said Lawrence, author of the book “The Class of ’74: Congress and the Roots of Partisanship.”

How times have changed: At least 10 freshman were in charge of subcommittees in the 114th Congress and at least 15 had gavels in the 112th Congress, according to a search of congressional directories.

Changes to Democratic Caucus rules that were adopted in the 1970s require House members to declare their No.1 committee priority and then select no other assignments until everyone else has declared their top choice. For freshmen, that meant deciding between one of three dozen spots on a big committee like Transportation and Infrastructure or trying to make a mark on a panel with fewer members.

Many of the 40 freshmen who helped swing the House to Democratic control represent districts that used to be represented by Republicans, and therefore could be difficult to defend in 2020. Playing a role on legislation important to those districts can give the freshmen an accomplishment to run on.

For instance, the Tidewater Virginia district of Rep. Elaine Luria has the biggest percentage of military veterans of any House constituency. She’s now running the Veterans Affairs’ Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee.

Space Subcommittee Chairwoman Kendra Horn is from Oklahoma, which has a large aerospace presence, a space port, and Tinker Air Force Base. She’ll be defending a seat she won by a margin of 1.4 percentage points.

Also of note: Some Democratic candidates in swing districts distanced themselves from Pelosi. Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), Jared Golden (D-Maine), Max Rose (D-N.Y.), Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) voted against her for speaker, yet still were given gavels.

Meet the Democrats who’ll spend their first term in office running subcommittees. Chairmanship priorities are included to those who responded to requests for comment.

House Agriculture Committee

Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.)

Subcommittee: Conservation and Forestry
Background: Multilingual; former CIA operative; former teacher; MBA.
Politics: Unseated Rep. Dave Brat (R) in a suburban Richmond district that includes rural areas.
Chairmanship Priorities: Spanberger says she wants to prioritize conservation programs that farmers can participate in, like carbon capture, and discuss how to protect both the Chesapeake Bay and the interests of farmers whose runoff goes into the bay. “My goal is to advance bipartisan priorities, particularly related to crop and livestock production in central Virginia,” she said in an interview.
BGOV Profile

Homeland Security

Max Rose (D-N.Y.)

Subcommittee: Intelligence and Counterterrorism
Background: Army veteran with master’s degree from the London School of Economics
Politics: His Staten Island district isn’t far from the World Trade Center site; voted for Trump in 2016; unseated Rep. Dan Donovan (R).
Chairmanship Priorities: Wants tighter coordination among national security agencies and efforts to counter anti-Semitism around the world, according to his website.
BGOV Profile

Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.)

Subcommittee: Oversight, Management, and Accountability
Background: Attorney
Politics: Represents a geographically vast border district that leans Republican; she won by a margin of less than 2 percentage points in a border district that Trump carried by 10 percentage points. It has more than 62,000 government workers, acccording to Census Bureau estimates.
Chairmanship Priorities: Looking into how the Customs and Border Patrol can recruit more qualified staff and retain good agents.
BGOV Profile

House Natural Resources Committee

T.J. Cox (D-Calif.)

Subcommittee: Oversight, Management, and Accountability
Background: Engineer, contractor, entrepreneur
Politics: Ousted Rep. David Valadao (R) in a Central Valley district that has among the lowest income and education levels in the nation.
Chairmanship Priorities: He supports science-based climate policy and the “judicious’’ investment of taxpayer money. “We will be looking at things like climate change and look to see if the data is being evaluated and applied in a realistic manner,” he said in an interview.
BGOV Profile

Deb Haaland (D-N.M.)

Subcommittee: National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
Background: Attorney; former tribal administrator
Politics: High statewide profile as a former lieutenant governor candidate. One of the first two native American women elected to Congress, she replaced Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) who ran successfully for governor.
Chairmanship Priorities: “I have Chaco Canyon in my state,’’ said Haaland. “It’s a living landscape, my ancestral homeland.” Chaco Culture National Historic Park is an area where the Trump administration wants “to sell the land so the gas and oil companies can come in and drill and frack,” she said. “I don’t think that should be the fate of national historic sites.”
BGOV Profile

House Oversight and Reform Committee

Harley Rouda (D-Calif.)

Subcommittee: Environment
Background: Attorney; founder of a real estate firm that was sold to a division of Berkshire Hathaway.
Politics: His coastal district includes Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach; defeated Dana Rohrabacher (R).
Chairmanship Priorities: Low-carbon infrastructure and climate change. “We have a great opportunity to use infrastructure as the tip of the spearhead to help address climate change here in the U.S.,” he told Bloomberg Environment.
BGOV Profile

Reps. Fletcher, Horn, Sherrill, Stevens.

House Science, Space and Technology Committee

Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas)

Subcommittee: Environment
Background: First female partner at a major Houston law firm
Politics: Defeated John Culberson (R)
Chairmanship Priorities: Fletcher looks forward to working with her colleagues “to hear about our changing world from government and industry experts to better understand the challenges we face in the 21st century and the technologies we are developing to address them,” according to a statement from her office.
BGOV Profile

Kendra Horn (D-Okla.)

Subcommittee: Space
Background: Attorney; former gubernatorial campaign manager; former lobbyist for two aerospace groups.
Politics: Upset Rep. Steve Russell (R) by 1.4 percentage points in a district that has a large aerospace presence and includes Tinker Air Force Base.
BGOV Profile

Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.)

Subcommittee: Oversight
Background: Former military pilot
Politics: Succeeded retired Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R) in a high-income, well-educated suburban district near New York City.
BGOV Profile

Haley Stevens (D-Mich.)

Subcommittee: Research and Technology
Background: Former Economic Development Administration policy adviser; helped set up the federal Office of Recovery for Automotive Communities and Workers, and the White House Office of Manufacturing Policy during the Obama administration.
Politics: Succeeded retiring Rep. Dave Trott (R) in a suburban Detroit district.
Chairmanship Priorities: Oversight of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Science Foundation; STEM education; cybersecurity. The NIST budget has motivated my run for Congress,” she said in an interview.
BGOV Profile

Reps. Crow, Finkenauer, Golden, Kim.

House Small Business Committee

Jason Crow (D-Colo.)

Subcommittee: Innovation and Workforce Development
Background: Attorney; led a platoon of paratroopers in Iraq and earned the Bronze Star.
Politics: Unseated Rep. Mike Coffman (R) in diversifying Denver suburbs
Chairmanship Priorities: Wants to eliminate barriers for immigrant business operators in his ethnically diverse district outside Denver. “There are barriers to refugees and immigrants to starting and growing small businesses that don’t exist for other people.”
BGOV Profile

Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa)

Subcommittee: Rural Development, Agriculture, Trade, and Entrepreneurship
Background: Elected to the state legislature at 25.
Politics: Defeated Rep. Rod Blum (R) in competitive northeastern Iowa district and already has a serious Republican challenger to her 2020 re-election
Chairmanship Priorities: “I look forward to working on policies that ensure that America’s small businesses can compete effectively in a global marketplace where they can grow, innovate, and create new jobs,” she said.
BGOV Profile

Jared Golden (D-Maine)

Subcommittee: Contracting and Infrastructure
Background: Former Marine and Senate aide.
Politics: Ousted Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) in mostly rural district that voted for Trump in 2016.
BGOV Profile

Andy Kim (D-N.J.)

Subcommittee: Economic Growth, Tax, and Capital Access
Background: Advised former Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan and was director on Iraq issues on Obama’s National Security Council for two years.
Politics: Unseated Rep. Tom MacArthur (R) in competitive district that includes some Philadelphia suburbs
Chairmanship Priorities: “When I ask people and business owners what their challenges are, access to capital, making sure they can get off the ground, that’s their top priority,’’ Kim said in an interview.
BGOV Profile

Reps. Susie Lee, Mike Levin, Elaine Luria, and Chris Pappas.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee

Susie Lee (D-Nev.)

Subcommittee: Technology Modernization
Background: Daughter of a veteran and founding director of an after-school program for at-risk students.
Politics: Succeeded now-Sen. Jacky Rosen (D) in competitive district in metropolitan Las Vegas.
Chairmanship Priorities: Successful implementation of the Electronic Health Record Modernization, Caregiver Program and the Financial Management Business Transformation program. “This subcommittee will also ensure that the Department of Defense and the VA are able to seamlessly transition service members from active duty to civilian life,” according to a statement from her office.
BGOV Profile

Mike Levin (D-Calif.)

Subcommittee: Economic Opportunity
Background: Attorney; started a trade organization for the clean energy industry.
Politics: Succeeded retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R) in a swath of Orange and San Diego Counties that’s trending Democratic.
Chairmanship Priorities: To improve veterans’ educational benefits, job opportunities, and access to affordable housing.
BGOV Profile

Elaine Luria (D-Va.)

Subcommittee: Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
Background: Navy veteran and small business owner.
Politics: Veterans comprise 17 percent of her district’s residents — the most of any congressional district. Ousted Rep. Scott Taylor (R) in a district hat has had five House members represent it within the past dozen years.
Chairmanship Priority: Modernizing the disability claims process
BGOV Profile

Chris Pappas (D-N.H.)

Subcommittee: Oversight and Investigations
Background: Helped run a restaurant founded by his great-grandfather; Harvard graduate.
Politics: Succeeded retiring Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) in a district that includes Manchester and where Trump edged Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Chairmanship Priorities: “I will work across the aisle to improve access to care by streamlining bureaucracy, increasing transparency, and ensuring our veterans receive the care they have earned,” according to a statement from his office.
BGOV Profile

With assistance from Greg Giroux and Jodie Morris

To contact the reporters on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jrowley@bgov.com; Katherine Scott in Washington at kscott@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com