• WisPolitics

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

 1:32 PM 

Obey, Petri advocate for empowering committee chairs

WisPolitics Luncheon: Former Representatives Obey and Petri from WisOpinion on Vimeo.

Having spent their careers on opposite sides of the aisle, former Congressmen Dave Obey and Tom Petri have found common ground in arguing the power shift toward party leadership is unhealthy.

The two say the leaders of committees, both at the federal and state levels, used to hold more power and influenced legislation to the point that some people even turned down leadership roles. But in the past two decades, decision making -- and fundraising -- has moved away from committees and into leadership offices, Obey and Petri told a WisPolitics.com luncheon at the Madison Club last week.

"And I think the result has been to have less well-informed, less knowledgeable staff and member input," said Petri, a House Republican who represented Wisconsin's 6th District from 1979 to January 2015. "And a lot of times, the legislation that does emerge is not as good as it could be because people are trying to get it done, with often the best of intentions, but looking at it from the sieve of keeping their team together, scoring partisan points for the next elections, which are legitimate top priorities for the leadership."

Obey, a former Appropriations Committee chair, is in the midst of a civics roadshow with Petri organized by the University of Wisconsin's Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS.org).

There is no obvious fix, Obey said, other than waiting for a natural correction.

"All I can say is that sooner or later, I think that the power is going to shift back somewhat because the expertise lies in the committees," he said. "And when this partisan zealousness fades, and it will, then that will happen."

Until then, Obey said, the tone of debate between the parties will remain more adversarial than if committee leaders still held sway. The focus now is on scoring points more than staking out positions and then seeking compromise.

Among the reasons for that, Obey said, is partisan redistricting in many states, including Wisconsin, and the resulting seat security, meaning there is less incentive to listen to the other side.

"And if you don't do that, if you don't think through what the other guys need, you won't have a lot of success in politics," Obey said. "Because if you want something to last, you don't have to have both parties be enthusiastic about it, but at least they have to be accepting of it."

That will happen, Obey said, because both parties eventually will realize they can't sustain a system that's more about winning through leadership offices than writing strong laws in committees.

"You need a balance between the two," he said, "and sooner or later the bodies will find that balance because if they don't, they're not going to be able to function, and they're going to be the laughingstock of the country because the country will realize that they don't know what the hell they're doing."

Any kind of sustained shift in power away from committees reduces the quality of legislation and alienates the people who could make those laws stronger, Petri added. He said the expertise of people in federal and state governments has never been higher, though it is difficult for that talent to shine through.

"But many of them become frustrated," Petri said, "because they are not able to use their judgement or their experience in a practical way as easily now as they could once they got a little seniority under the old system."

Click here to listen to the luncheon discussion.

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