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What about committees? Here’s what’s likely if Evan McMullin keeps his no-caucus promise

Independent challenger Evan McMullin speaks with reporters following a televised debate with Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Orem, Utah.
Rick Bowmer
Independent challenger Evan McMullin speaks with reporters following a televised debate with Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Orem, Utah.

If independent candidate for U.S. Senate Evan McMullin makes it to Washington, he has promised not to caucus with Republicans or Democrats. That could present a challenge when it comes to getting committee assignments because lawmakers must be nominated to a committee by party leaders and approved by the entire Senate.

Committees are where the majority of legislation is cooked up. It’s where members first introduce policy ideas, meet with topic experts, vote on bill amendments and pass modifications before a bill heads to the floor for a chamber-wide vote.

Essentially, committees are where most policymaking magic happens. And no lawmaker in modern history has received committee assignments without caucusing with either party.

University of Utah Associate Political Science Professor James Curry used to work for the House Appropriations Committee. He said most lawmakers seek out committees that will give them power over policies that are important to them, their congressional district or their state.

“That gives them a chance to really shape things in the interests of their constituents that they want to get to vote for them again next time,” he said.

McMullin stands firm that he won’t side with either party but claims he will be required to have committee assignments based on Senate rules.

Gordon Jones, founder and faculty member at Mount Liberty College in Murray and occasional writer for Utah Policy, said the independent candidate isn’t getting the whole picture.

McMullin cites a rule that says senators may serve on no more than two committees to back up his argument, but Gordon said that’s a “limiting” rule.

“All it [the rule] says is you can't be on more than two certain kinds of committees,” Jones said. “But unless he [McMullin] is nominated by one of those party leaders, he won't be on a committee.”

And history backs up Jones’ comment. Curry pointed to former independent Sen. Dean Barkley from Minnesota. During his brief appointment to the Senate, Barkley decided not to caucus with either party and therefore didn’t have any committee assignments.

If McMullin sticks to his guns and decides not to caucus, an alternative and possibly more difficult approach would be needed.

“That would require him to have to actually negotiate with the leadership of both parties for them to essentially sacrifice a seat from one of their party members on a committee and give it to him,” Curry said.

It’s unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would be willing to give up a committee seat for an independent wild card, Curry pointed out, especially when the Senate is split.

Jones stressed the importance of having a voice on certain committees that directly impact Utah, like public lands, water and federal money.

“Unless Utah has a senator on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the state will be at the mercy of eastern interests who have no idea what goes on out here, how we live, what needs to happen,” Jones said.

Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Lee is currently a member of the Energy and Natural Resource Committee.

Political science research shows states with lawmakers on committees are more likely to have federal funds allocated their direction.

The main question that remains is how much power McMullin will have in the Senate if he doesn’t receive any committee assignments.

Jones and Curry both agree: “He would have his vote.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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