Continuing on Yglesias's attack on how Democrats choose Senate committee Chairs...
I'm setting this part as a separate post because it's mostly speculative. Yglesias wants the Democrats to choose committee chairs based on party loyalty, in order to pressure candidates for committee chair to support party goals, and I argue that Senate committee chairs aren't worth fighting over.
House committee chairs, however, do matter quite a bit, and here the difference is that Democrats basically go by seniority with exceptions, while the Republicans violate seniority more often and term limit out their chairs (or, now, ranking members). Which is better?
Yglesias is correct that the Republican method yields more control for the leadership. What's not at all clear is whether that's a good thing for the party as a whole. Hierarchical arrangements probably do work well for forcing through short-term goals. They also entail several long-term costs. The first is the most obvious: Members forced to vote their party, not their district, may well run into electoral trouble.
But beyond that, empowering individual Members and the committee structure instead of only empowering the leadership has the benefit of encouraging good lawmaking, creativity, and ultimately better public policy, all of which are good for the party in the long run. This is the speculative part -- but where are the Republican Henry Waxmans and Barny Franks? This train of thought leads to the possible conclusion that when you treat rank-and-file members, up to and including committee chairs, as lackeys of the leadership, then it is no surprise when your conference dissolves into a swamp of earmarks, favor-trading, and incompetence. Granted, there have been no shortage of Democratic crooks in Congress, but what was notable, I think, about the Abramoff Republicans was just how little the GOP had to show for its twelve years in the majority. I'd argue that it is in fact no coincidence; when your committee chairs are term-limited out of a chance to build real expertise, they are far more likely to use their brief tenure to cash in.
Of course, committees certainly can be parochial, and I agree that parties should avoid having ideological outliers in critical positions. The latter was a problem in the middle of the last century, but really hasn't been since the early 1970s; the former is simply the cost of doing business in a democracy. Overall, committee structure is not a serious impediment to action in the current Senate, and I argue that Democrats are well advised to encourage structures that will develop the next generation of Waxmans, Franks, and Ted Kennedys, rather than trying to turn Congress into a top-down body.