Harry Reid faces what ought to be an easy choice. In January, the Senate majority leader will need to fill two vacant spots on the Senate Banking Committee to replace retiring Democrats. Just by luck, one of the newly elected Democratic senators happens to be a nationally renowned expert on consumer finance, bankruptcy, and the financial industry.
So why is naming Massachusetts Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren to the banking committee even an issue? Heeding the decorum of the Senate, Warren has not publicly said she wants to join the panel, which oversees banks, monetary policy, and other matters. But Wall Street interests hostile to Warren are reportedly lobbying Democrats to keep her off. For many of Warren’s supporters, Reid’s choice is now shaping up as an ideological fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, pitting a populist wing personified by Warren against more Wall Street-friendly Democrats.
That is an unfortunate way to frame the choice, and one that slights Warren. Before she ran for Senate, Warren was already one of the leading analysts of consumer bankruptcy. She headed the oversight committee that monitored the federal bank bailout, giving her an in-depth understanding of the way Wall Street works. A Republican with her background would be a natural fit for the banking committee, too.
Determining committee memberships has never been a fully meritocratic process. Electoral considerations — every farm state senator wants a spot on the agriculture committee, for instance — and factors like seniority often play an undue role. But qualifications still do count for something. When Scott Brown went to the Senate, his membership in the National Guard made him a natural fit for the Armed Services Committee. Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is a former prosecutor.
If Reid bows to pressure to keep Warren off the banking committee, she would end up on some other Senate committee like homeland security or energy, both of which also had retiring members. She would be a solid addition — but would bring no special expertise to either panel. Putting her there would be more than a surrender to lobbyists by Democratic leaders. It would be a waste of talent.