Senate Chairs

Published — January 5, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Senate chairs: Democrats have deep ties to industries they oversee

Two key panels have new chairs; Most are holdovers


Though the Democrats lost six of their 59 Senate seats in the November election, they still enter the 112th Congress in control of the upper chamber and its 16 committees. Fourteen sitting chairs from the 111th Congress will continue to lead their panels, while vacancies resulting from the retirement of Sen. Chris Dodd and the defeat of Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas will leave two panels — Banking and Agriculture — with new chairs.

In early November, the Center for Public Integrity released The Chairmen: New House Leaders Have Familiar Ties to Business, Revolving Door, examining the likely leaders of the 11 committees with the most clout in the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Now the Center examines the Democratic counterparts who will lead the comparable committees in the Senate.

The Senate chairs, though mostly white males, do include more diversity than the House chairmen-elect. Two major standing committees are led by women, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Debbie Stabenow, and a third is chaired by Sen. Daniel Inouye, son of Japanese immigrants. Two other standing committees not examined in this report are chaired by a man of Native Hawaiian decent (Daniel Akaka) and a woman (Mary Landrieu) respectively.

Chairs range from some of the most liberal members of the Senate to some of the most conservative Democrats in the body. All have received significant contributions from special interest political action committees, including those whose fortunes depend on the committee’s activities.

The Center’s examination focused on those set to chair the Senate panels on agriculture, appropriations, armed services, banking, budget, commerce, energy, environment and public works, finance, health and education, homeland security and governmental affairs, and judiciary. It did not include a separate profile for the appropriations defense subcommittee, as it did in the House report, as Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii does double-duty as chair of that subcommittee.

Unlike the House chairmen, who generally got the bulk of their campaign funds from special interest PACs, only one of these Senate chairs got the majority of his funds over the past two campaign cycles from political action committees: Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

Like the House chairs, the Senate chairs have all employed aides involved in the Capitol Hill revolving door. All 12 have former staffers who are now federal lobbyists, in many cases for interests affected by their former bosses’ committees. For example, a former chief of staff to Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller is now a lobbyist at GreenbergTraurig, where he represents General Motors and Toyota. Not only does the committee oversee much of the industry’s regulation, but Rockefeller lists the attraction of a Toyota plant to West Virginia as a prime achievement in his official bio.

Our profiles include (where appropriate):

  • Top PAC Contributors: using data from subscription-only CQ MoneyLine, we examined contributions from political action committees in the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 (reported so far) election cycles to the would-be chairmen’s campaign committee and leadership PAC, if any
  • Revolving Door: former staffers who are now registered lobbyists
  • Earmarks: requests for earmarks obtained by member in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 budgets, according to the databases provided by Taxpayers for Common Sense
  • Ethical Issues: any significant ethical questions the member has previously faced
  • Campaign Promises: pledges or other hints of what the member’s priorities would be as chair of the relevant committee (only for the two new incoming chairs)

New Chairs:

Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee

Debbie Stabenow

Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee

Tim Johnson

Continuing Chairs:

Appropriations Committee (and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee)

Daniel Inouye

Armed Services Committee

Carl Levin

Budget Committee

Kent Conrad

Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee

John D. “Jay” Rockefeller

Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Jeff Bingaman

Environment and Public Works Committee

Barbara Boxer

Finance Committee

Max Baucus

Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee

Tom Harkin

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee

Joseph Lieberman

Judiciary Committee

Patrick Leahy

Read more in Money and Democracy

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