What’s in a Name?

Democrats recast committee titles to signal a new era.

The House panel that oversees U.S. relations with foreign nations dates back to the Continental Congress in 1775. It was first known as the Committee of Correspondence, then the Committee of Secret Correspondence, before Congress finally settled on calling it the Foreign Affairs Committee in the early part of the 19th century.

With the exception of one brief period, that name sufficed until 1995, when the newly ascendant Republican House majority decided to buck tradition and give the committee a new name-the International Relations Committee.

The change was little more than a cosmetic alteration (a Republican leader explained at the time that the term "international relations" suggested a more outward-looking approach) but that was exactly the point. The new party in power rejected every element of the old Democratic order, right down to the names of particular committees. Between the renaming of some full committees and the outright elimination of others, Republicans managed to signal both their legislative intentions and their repudiation of decades of Democratic House rule.

Democrats never forgot the sting of that Republican reproach, so it should come as no surprise that they have engaged in a bit of payback in the 110th Congress. Now that Democrats are back in control, a handful of House panels have reverted to their pre-1995 names while other committees and subcommittees have been given entirely new ones, all of it designed to send a message about the new Democratic majority's priorities.

"A new sheriff has come to town, taking the reins with a purpose," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., whose first act as chairman was to rechristen his International Relations Committee as the Foreign Affairs Committee. "Americans have demanded change in the way our country conducts itself in the world. Count on Congress to see to it." Foreign Affairs isn't the only committee to see its old pre-1995 name restored. The Education and the Workforce Committee is once again the Education and Labor Committee; the Resources Committee is again the Natural Resources Committee.

To the untrained eye, these subtle changes might appear meaningless and inconsequential. Yet in political terms, they are anything but. The Republican act of removing the word "labor" from the Education and Labor Committee in 1995 was viewed at the time as an affront to organized labor; the Democratic act of returning it in 2007 was an attempt by Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., to remedy that slight. Likewise, adding the word "natural" to the Resources Committee name is a calculated move designed to highlight a Democratic commitment to the environment, rather than to those who seek to utilize its resources.

In some cases, the motives behind the new names are more obvious. Since the need for increased congressional oversight was a central theme in the 2006 election, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., changed his panel's name from the Government Reform Committee to the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. At the Homeland Security Committee, the subcommittee formerly known as Management, Integration and Oversight has now been renamed Management, Investigation and Oversight. Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., a liberal and harsh Bush administration critic, changed his Subcommittee on the Constitution to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

It's no coincidence that chairmen like Conyers, Waxman, Miller and Lantos have led these exercises in Democratic muscle-flexing. As veteran legislators whose service predates the 1994 Republican takeover, they have fond memories of the glory days when Democrats were masters of the House and committee names reflected Democratic priorities. The opportunity to show their disdain for 12 years of Republican rule is an added benefit.

Charles Mahtesian is editor of The Almanac of American Politics.

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