Senator Mike Lee: a case of committee staff capture?

In a recent post, I expressed some disappointment with Senator Mike Lee for joining Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota in “jawboning” attacks on U.S. companies Pfizer Pharmaceutical, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, for contemplated mergers. I considered them as inconsistent with out junior Senator’s professed antipathy to government interference in the private marketplace. Today I would like to suggest a possible explanation for his deviance from professed principle: committee staff capture.

Senator Mike Lee: a case of committee staff capture?
by Gordon Jones

I hasten to admit that I do not have the foggiest idea if this explanation is accurate. I know nothing about Lee’s Washington staff. What I do have is 40 years of experience on Capitol Hill in Washington, and some theoretical and practical knowledge of how bureaucrats in Congress (and yes, Virginia, there are bureaucrats in Congress) operate.

There are two factors at work that could explain Lee’s action. One is that every Senator has a large staff (a Senator from a large state could have as many as 200), and the career advancement of those staffers depends on the whim of the Senator. Each staffer has an incentive to capture his boss’s attention, and to do that, the staffer must suggest some form of action. Unless the staff member is highly ideological, it won’t matter much what the action is, so long as it is something that will get the Senator some press, or earn some credit with other Senate offices, the White House, or the real bureaucracy “downtown,” in the regulatory agencies.

The second factor comes into play with respect to committee staff, usually after a change in party control in Congress. Pertinently, at the beginning of this year, the Senate switched from Democratic control to Republican. That means that the chairmanship of every committee and subcommittee also changed from Democrat to Republican.

Senator Mike Lee: a case of committee staff capture?
Utah Senator Mike Lee

What it should also mean is that the staff of every committee and subcommittee changed from Democrat to Republican, but the fact is that it doesn’t, always. Much of the work of a subcommittee is technical, and arcane. It can be intimidating for a new committee chairman to take on the on-going work of the committee, even if he or she has been on the committee for some time, and has been the Ranking Member. There is always a temptation for new Republican chairs to keep on Democratic staff members “for an interim” period. They are professionals, and should be able to serve the interests of their new masters as effectively as they did their own. (And I should note that in my experience Democrats are better at resisting the temptation than Republicans.)

And yes, they are professionals, but they are professional Democrats (or Republicans), and they don’t shed those predilections as readily or as completely as they should. Their motivations may not be evil; it really is hard for Democratic staffers to understand that the fundamental orientation of their new boss is really different from their old one. (And in too many cases, it may not be.)

So here is what may have happened: In January Mike Lee moved from being the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights (and isn’t that a constitutional monstrosity?) to being its chairman. Just possibly he did not do as thorough a job as he might (should?) have in cleaning out staff loyal to former chairman Amy Klobuchar. Just possibly he did not install as subcommittee staff director someone strong enough to keep the retained Democratic staffers in line. (Although all staff are appointed by the chairman, the ranking member makes recommendations, and in virtually all cases those recommendations are accepted. Numerically, where the staff may have been 20 Dems and 10 Repubs – I am making all these numbers up – it will now be 20 Repubs and 10 Dems.)

As I say, I have no idea if that is what happened, but it is a possible explanation for an otherwise unexplained deviation of Mike Lee from ideological orthodoxy. Even if nothing like this did happen, they fact that it does happen might serve to alert Senator Lee to the phenomenon as he continues his senatorial career, and faces switches in party control in future years. As my old boss Ed Feulner at the Heritage Foundation used to say, “people are policy.” Verb. sap.

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