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Posts in "Culture of Congress"
July 30, 2014
Eric Cantor’s slow fade toward the exits of the House majority leader’s office is one day from its official completion. But as a practical matter he’s been almost invisible for several weeks.
And at the Capitol, there are no outward signs that one of the most important congressional jobs is changing hands after 43 months — and one stunning primary outcome in central Virginia.
The wet blanket of quiet is another reminder of how Congress, as much as any other prominent American institution, makes quick work of people who lose their clout. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business,” is one of the institution’s words-to-live-by aphorisms. Another is, “You may be a rooster today, but you’ll be a feather duster soon enough.”
Cantor’s colleagues say they decided to forgo any public ceremony to mark the end of his time as the No. 2 Republican, official as of midnight Thursday. Rather than a round of speeches now — which might come off as funereal so close to his involuntary separation from power — an organized tribute on the House floor will be arranged toward the conclusion of the lame-duck session, when Cantor’s 14-year congressional career will be at its end.
But Republican lawmakers won’t wait until December for their invitation-only wake. The incoming majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, is hosting a party for Cantor on Wednesday night at the Capitol Hill Club. On the last evening before lawmakers take off for five weeks, the GOP’s fusty official hangout should be packed with get-away energy. (McCarthy picked the much hipper Blue Jacket at the Navy Yard for the bash he tossed Tuesday night honoring the biggest loser in the post-Cantor leadership shuffle, outgoing chief deputy whip Peter Roskam of Illinois.)
As an interim eulogy staffers assembled a schmaltzy, if brief at just 126 seconds, video about Cantor’s time as majority leader. Shown at Tuesday’s weekly meeting of the House Republican Conference and later distributed to congressional reporters, the highlight reel was long on Cantor’s efforts to soften the rough edges of his fractured caucus. It offered a reminder of his pride in being the only Jewish Republican in Congress. But, predictably, the tape didn’t even hint at his rocky passages as a legislative strategist, his fundraising prowess or his complex relationship with Speaker John A. Boehner. Full story
July 24, 2014
Few things Congress does come in for more ridicule than its penchant for naming post offices. While the exercise soaks up some floor time and keeps the clerks busy, it alters public policy not one bit. Instead, each new honorific provides lawmakers with nothing beyond a sliver of feel-good accomplishment.
But even perpetuating this hallmark of our “do-nothing” legislative era is becoming complicated by partisan gamesmanship and the ideological strife inside the Republican Party.
The most prominent postal tribute hanging in the balance this summer would offer a startlingly modest tribute to Barry Goldwater — who drove the resurgence of the Republican right half a century ago, was the party’s 1964 presidential candidate and was hailed as “Mr. Conservative” during his three decades as a senator from Arizona. Full story
July 16, 2014
They don’t make members of Congress like Ken Gray any more. In today’s political climate, it would be next to impossible to make him up.
More than a quarter century after he left the House, Gray died on July 12 at age 89. And he was still remembered with bemused fondness by those old-timers at the Capitol who lament that the place isn’t populated with as many “characters” as it used to be.
Gray represented the rural southern reaches of Illinois from 1955 through 1974, when he first departed because of a heart condition and signs of an impending scandal. The Democrat returned a decade later, and served another two terms before retiring for good. That run dovetailed with my first years in Washington, and the boldness of his legislative, interpersonal and sartorial styles made him stand out as a tonic in a House where the members were becoming increasingly cautious in their policy proposals, circumspect in their dealings with the other party and downright boring in their presentation.
Gray was the opposite on all counts. His career was a vivid reminder of the time when the bipartisan pursuit of parochial project spending could be practiced with unbridled enthusiasm as well as success. Full story
July 8, 2014
Perhaps by design, and maybe because of circumstance, Jim Risch remains among the least recognized senators after almost six years on the job. But, given the course of his path to Congress, he was at a big disadvantage from the start — if getting noticed was his desire.
In a place where fascinating back-stories and dramatic arrivals count for much, Risch had neither. He sailed to the Senate without suspense, a very conservative Republican claiming an open seat in very conservative Idaho in 2008, when the national political story was the big Democratic year. His credentials included a reputation for resilience and three decades as a power broker in his state house, but he was overlooked from the start and since then has rarely come off publicity’s back bench.
Risch’s underwhelming first-term impression illustrates one of the odder paradoxes of today’s congressional culture: The easier time a candidate has getting to the Hill, the tougher time that new lawmaker has getting noticed upon arrival.
The incumbents, staffers, operatives, lobbyists and reporters who make up the capital’s political class spend almost all their time at the water cooler handicapping the tight races and getting to know the would-be giant killers and takeover engineers. And those winners get disproportionate attention at the start of their congressional careers. Generally, that comes at the expense of the freshmen who got to Washington without breaking a sweat the previous fall.
The phenomenon comes to mind now that this year’s House and Senate nominees have been finalized in more than half the states — yielding a roster of 20 candidates for open seats who are, in effect, already on their way to the 114th Congress. Because of their constituencies’ demographics and solidly reliable partisan voting history, securing the party nomination in their districts or states is tantamount to winning the general election. Full story
June 18, 2014
If midterm elections are all about mobilizing the base, then both parties can take heart in new research showing their bands of hard-core supporters have grown bigger and more hard-core than ever before.
And if members are looking for a new answer for all the criticism that Congress is more polarized and partisan than ever, the same study’s findings support a response that sounds something like this: We’re simply reflecting the intensifying attitudes of our own constituents, which is what we’re supposed to do in a representative democracy.
The study by the venerable Pew Research Center got less attention than it merited upon its release last week, even though the results helped explain the news story that pushed if off the front pages: Rep. Eric Cantor’s GOP primary upset in Virginia. Among the conclusions are that the electorate is more likely than ever to demand ideological consistency from a candidate, and the most ideological voters are also the most energized and likeliest to participate in primaries.
Plenty of other polls have pointed to the nation’s widening ideological divide, but Pew’s newest work is unusual in showing that split in lifestyle preferences as well as political choices. And the study is remarkable because it was based on a survey this winter of 10,000 Americans, or about 10 times the sample size of a typical poll.
Pew makes clear that partisanship is becoming ever more pervasive and entrenched among Democratic and Republican voters alike. But it’s the numbers describing the GOP electorate that have gained the closest scrutiny at the Capitol in the past week, by House Republicans pondering a refashioning of their leadership to better reflect their current positioning with supporters.
If California’s Kevin McCarthy is elected the new majority leader Thursday, as widely expected, then the Republican Conference will choose his successor as majority whip from three members representing different veins of congressional conservatism. It would be the first time the most confrontational rightward-thinking members, mostly elected in 2010 and 2012, have had a chance to install one of their favorites in the leadership triumvirate.
As evidence that it’s past time for them to have a seat at the senior table, this group can point to several Pew findings about two crucial and overlapping segments of the party base. That would be the 33 percent of Republicans who are the most engaged politically (because they almost always vote) and the 9 percent with views revealing themselves as the most consistently conservative. Full story
June 10, 2014
He called off the traditional picnic for lawmakers not once but twice last summer, then missed both congressional holiday balls so he could speak at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. But now plans seem locked down for everyone in the 113th Congress to have at least one sociable interaction with President Barack Obama at the White House.
Don’t expect those feel-good moments to do anything to alter the do-nothing nature of the relationship between Congress and the president.
Save-the-date emails have gone out to every member. They advise lawmakers to plan on bringing their spouses and kids to the South Lawn for supper, family-friendly entertainment and maybe even a snapshot with the first couple on Sept. 17. (There’s even a rain date, scheduled for the next night if necessary.)
Given that it will be approaching two years since rank-and-file members were able to break bread with the president, and that the party is in the middle of a week when both the House and Senate will be in session, turnout is guaranteed to be strong. Even the most combative junior Republicans and the most jaded senior Democrats can’t resist a social invitation from the White House — especially one that allows them to usher their families into town to taste the sort of history-tinged glamour that’s largely disappeared from congressional life.
The picnic also guarantees at least one weeknight in Washington this year when the relentless machinery of campaign fundraising will be throttled to almost a full stop.
There’s no chance that an evening of bonhomie and burgers will do anything to narrow the partisan chasm. And the opportunity to peer into Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden at dusk won’t prompt any lawmaker to think better of the West Wing’s legislative liaison efforts. Full story
June 8, 2014
Last week marked only the second time in his life that Thad Cochran did not win an election outright.
The previous instance was 18 years ago this month, when he was defeated for Senate majority leader by Mississippi’s other Republican senator at the time, Trent Lott. That contest foreshadowed as clearly as anything the dire political predicament Cochran finds himself in now — just two weeks from a GOP primary runoff where state Sen. Chris McDaniel seems to have most everything going his way.
The outcome will decide more than whether Cochran is denied a seventh term. His defeat would guarantee that, come 2015, the chamber would have just two members who knew life in the Senate before Ronald Reagan was president. A McDaniel victory would allow the tea party movement to portray its confrontational style of conservatism as alive and well in the top tier of American politics.
And the only primary defeat of an incumbent senator this year would bring down the curtain on a fading era at the Capitol. Cochran was already an anomaly because he never wavered from the view that being urbane and soft-spoken in public, and collegial and collaborative behind the scenes, was the surest route to institutional success and job satisfaction. But that approach, of course, has almost entirely fallen out of fashion on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the Capitol — supplanted by a pathway in which partisan bombast and reflexive combativeness are rewarded while cordiality and thoughtfulness are ridiculed.
This shift in the congressional culture was given one of its first high-profile Senate displays in June 1996, when Bob Dole unexpectedly gave up the GOP floor leader’s job (along with his Kansas seat) to focus on his challenge to President Bill Clinton’s re-election. Full story
June 2, 2014
It’s among the more curious recent coincidences in Congress. The veterans’ health care scandal reached a climax, and galvanized unusually bipartisan outrage — just as the dwindling roster of veterans slips below a symbolic threshold.
The defeat of 91-year-old Rep. Ralph M. Hall in the Texas Republican primary last week means there won’t be any veterans of World War II at the Capitol come January. He was among the nearly 500 members from the “greatest generation” who served both during the war and in Congress.
Hall’s impending departure underscores how the decline in members with military experience has been accelerating for three decades, creating ample anxiety for veterans organizations. As their roster of virtually guaranteed Hill allies has dwindled — and splintered among lawmakers who served in half a dozen conflicts — these groups have grown increasingly concerned that Congress is losing its ardor for forcefully addressing veterans’ concerns.
Their fears have grown as budget constraints have intensified and because the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have gained reputations as legislative backwaters — not only beset by rapid turnover, from the top seats on down, but also now infused with the partisanship that had for so long skirted these committees.
The worries will be tested anew this summer, no matter who is nominated to run the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to replace Eric Shinseki, who resigned last week. Revelations about astonishingly long waiting times for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and efforts by officials to cover up the problem, is applying considerable pressure on both parties to compromise on legislation smoothing delivery of care to the 6.5 million veterans who use the system annually.
Senate Democrats on Sunday unveiled a revived and expanded version of their comprehensive VA health care bill, which was blocked by a GOP filibuster in February. It calls for overhauling the VA appointment scheduling computer system, hiring more medical personnel, making it easier to fire senior department officials and creating 27 new veterans clinics. Implementation would cost at least $18 billion during the next five years.
When the House returns next week, it will begin moving legislation embodying the GOP’s big idea on the subject, which is to make the VA embrace more privatization. The bill would permit any veteran who has waited more than a month for an appointment at a department facility to get care from a private hospital or doctor, with the VA providing vouchers for footing the bill.
Both measures look likely to move through the Veterans’ Affairs committees, creating rare moments in the national spotlight for a pair of panels that are more often regarded as legislative afterthoughts by leadership and as way stations by the rank and file.
In the past decade, the chairmanship of the Senate panel has changed five times and the House committee gavel has been passed along four times. Six of the 14 seats on the Senate committee have changed hands over the last four years. Turnover on the House side has been even more dramatic: Nine of today’s 14 Republicans, and eight of the 11 Democrats, are in their first or second terms. That’s 17 of 25 lawmakers who are relatively new to Congress. The general rule has been that members are willing to bide their time on the VA panels only until their bids come through for more powerful or prestigious committee posts.
In the winter, Republicans blocked the Senate bill to protest both its cost and the restrictions imposed on what amendments they could offer. Now, with the wait time scandal on the front pages, Democrats are betting a sufficient number of Republicans will reverse course.
GOP interest in more private care, and the thwarting of the Senate bill, have caused friction between veterans lobbying groups and the top Republican on the Senate panel, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina. (Another sign of the high turnover on the panels is that Burr rose to be ranking member after just four years as a senator.)
The rift burst open over Memorial Day weekend, when Burr offered a blanket condemnation of veterans organizations, saying they are “more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.” Many of the groups lambasted him right back, with several of Burr’s critics suggesting he had no feel for the real concerns of people who wore a uniform because he is not among them.
Sticking by that correlation could prove problematic for the veterans groups. Military service is on the resumes of only eight of the 39 lawmakers now serving on either of the VA panels — and none of them is a chairman or ranking member.
Those numbers are a precise reflection of the entire 113th Congress. Just 19 percent of the current membership served in the military (86 lawmakers in the House and 18 in the Senate). That percentage peaked at 77 percent (347 in the House and 65 in the Senate) in 1977, when members of the World War II generation were in their late 40s and early 50s. With those people aging and the era of an all-volunteer armed forces set in place, the share of veterans has been shrinking since — dropping below half of lawmakers in the middle 1990s and falling below one-quarter a decade ago.
According to data compiled by CQ Roll Call, nearly one-third of the veterans now on the Hill served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Only one, recently appointed Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana, saw combat.
Speaker John A. Boehner is the only member of the leadership with any military service. He enlisted right after graduating from high school in Ohio in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, but was honorably discharged after eight weeks in the Navy because of a back problem.
The 2012 election, meanwhile, was the first presidential contest since 1944 when neither major party nominee was a veteran.
Hall, first elected in 1980, will now join Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, who’s retiring, in turning out the lights on the Hill’s World War II generation in December. (The Senate’s final veteran of that conflict, Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, died last year.)
The first of their ilk arrived in 1944, before the war was even over. That’s when Democrat George Andrews won an Alabama House seat while on active duty in the Navy, and Republican William Jenner was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy fresh from his discharge as a captain in the Army Air Corps.
Jenner retired in 1958, while Andrews stayed until 1970. But neither of them ever served on a committee that handled veterans policy. In their day, there just weren’t enough seats to go around.
May 4, 2014
A voice vote in the House usually means the proposal is genuinely beyond reasonable opposition, despite today’s very low bar for rancorous discord.
That was the case last week on an amendment to reduce Capitol maintenance by $500,000 next year and instead spend the money on enhancing sexual harassment training for members and their aides.
In (yet another) election year when Democrats will accuse Republicans of “waging a war on women” at almost every turn, there was immediate bipartisan agreement on this much: Congress could stand to allocate a little less for floor wax and light bulbs in order to do a better job informing its employees what their rights are, the many forms of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace and where to turn if they are harassed by colleagues or superiors — including their elected bosses.
Still, it was something of a surprise that no member demanded a roll call vote, which would have meant someone insisting on going on record against an idea seemingly above reproach. Surely some anti-regulatory Republican conservative in a safe district would be ready to take the political risk — especially after hearing the ranking Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, declare that the language was written “to provide mandatory sexual harassment training for all congressional offices in the House.”
But that isn’t what the language says. It does not create any mandate for members. Unless the provision is strengthened by the Senate or in conference, there can be no headline declaring, “Lawmakers must undergo training to prevent sexual harassment.” Full story
April 9, 2014
Rep. Vance McAllister is showing every sign he’s hunkering down in hopes of saving his nascent political life. But recent House history signals that it’s going to be a futile pursuit.
His troubles are unique in one respect — no member in modern history has seen his congressional career beset by scandal so quickly. It was just 137 days from when McAllister was sworn in to represent northeastern Louisiana, the Republican winner of a special election, to the release of grainy security camera footage of him in an 18-second lip lock with someone who is not his wife.
But Melissa Hixon Peacock is not simply a 33-year-old married woman caught canoodling with a 40-year-old congressman. Back when they were making out just before Christmas, and until Tuesday when she left the government payroll (whether voluntarily or not isn’t clear), she was his district scheduler. And that’s what places McAllister in what’s almost assuredly a non-survivable predicament.
In the past eight years, four other men of the House have been exposed for having, or seeming to seek, sexual relationships with congressional aides. None of them stayed in office longer than a couple of weeks.
Several members in the past few decades have (at least for a while) survived their sexual transgressions, substance abuse admissions, financial improprieties or other personal failings. But the punishment for dalliances with staffers has always been a swift political death penalty — no matter whether the behavior was by a Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, consensual or predatory, back home or on the Hill. Full story
April 8, 2014
He’s sounding politically tone deaf, of course, but on the merits Rep. James P. Moran has a solid case to make about congressional compensation.
Social media lit up with ridicule for the suburban Virginia Democrat last week, after he boldly told my colleague Hannah Hess, “The American people should know the members of Congress are underpaid.”
It’s a call to arms that someone running for re-election, even in the safest district, would be a fool to make at a time when the institution’s approval rating stands at a near-record-low 15 percent and the median household income in the United States is less than one-third of a member’s annual salary of $174,000.
Which is why, amid all the howling about how Moran should have his head examined (right after he’s impeached), there’s been precious little interest in understanding the justifiable reasons for such a provocative complaint, let alone what the congressman would do to improve the situation. Full story
March 31, 2014
It’s shaping up to be a pretty rough week for Michigan. But the blows to its biggest business and its college basketball teams may be only a foretaste of something more consequentially harmful and longer lasting.
The state’s sway at the Capitol is getting ready for a big fall.
Monday’s retirement announcement by Dave Camp, the second-most senior Republican from the state and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added a siren to the warning signs about diminished influence.
For the past quarter-century, the Roll Call Clout Index has gauged the relative strength of every state’s delegation at the start of each Congress. Michigan has remained the eighth most populous state since 1990, but its team of lawmakers has finished as high as fourth in influence several times — and never lower than the current ranking of seventh.
Michigan’s ability to remain anywhere in the Top 10 next year is now seriously imperiled. The size of the delegation (14 House members plus the pair of senators) is not going to shrink again this decade, but downward arrows are blinking red next to all the other quantifiable factors: collective longevity and positioning for power, and influence in leadership and the committee system.
March 17, 2014
The newest member of the House, David Jolly, represents more than an early trophy for the Republicans and a vision of worry for the Democrats this midterm election year. For legions of Hill aides in both parties, he’s also a happy reminder that time as a staffer remains one of the best possible resume builders for those who aspire to someday wear a member’s pin.
Jolly’s opponents in Florida’s special House election never tired of affixing to him the epithet Beltway lobbyist, and that’s how he’s made a good living since 2007. But before then he spent almost a dozen years on the staff of his predecessor, the late C.W. Bill Young. He rose from legislative aide right out of college to district director and then general counsel when Young chaired the Appropriations Committee.
At his swearing in last week, Jolly became the 62nd current House member who’s held a paid position as a congressional aide. The same is also true of 14 incumbent senators. In both chambers, that’s one out of seven members.
And the roster looks likely to grow in the 114th Congress. Three somewhat competitive Senate races have candidates who once worked on the Hill, and former aides are solidly in the hunt in a dozen House contests. Thirty more with staff experience are running what appear to be hopeless federal campaigns at the moment, but some of those could still blossom. (None of these figures includes the dozens of members or 2014 candidates who have been Hill interns.)
The numbers underscore what may seem intuitively obvious in the Capitol Hill community: The sort of people who dream about becoming “the principal” will gravitate to employment with the elected officials they want to emulate. And those given an opportunity to conclude, from firsthand experience, that the congressional life’s potential benefits outweigh its manifest frustrations may be more likely to take the candidacy plunge.
Serving as an aide, in other words, is just as obvious a ticket-punching move for a budding career politician as is a judicial clerkship is for someone hoping to end up on the bench. Full story
February 25, 2014
If Debbie Dingell wins the campaign she’s formally launching on Friday — a solid if not quite certain bet — she’ll make history in more than the obvious way.
She would be keeping one House seat in the same family well into a ninth decade, but would also become the first person to ever come to Congress as the successor to a living spouse.
That might sound like an amazing distinction to modern ears, given how control over accounting firms, law offices, medical practices and other small businesses now pass relatively routinely to the younger half of a married couple when the older person (usually the husband) tires of the daily grind. And in Washington, D.C., of course, the dominant political story is whether Hillary Rodham Clinton will end up getting the same government job her husband had for eight years.
But congressional political dynamics have proved remarkably resistant to this sort of evolution in family and gender roles. Full story
February 24, 2014
John D. Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, and easily the most overpoweringly influential House chairman of this generation, is calling an end to his own era.
A complex and cunning Democrat who is in his 59th year of representing the Detroit area and who will turn 88 in July, Dingell announced Monday that he would retire at the end of the year rather than seek a 30th full term. The news floored the Capitol, where almost no one in the workaday population has known life without his presence.
“Presidents come and presidents go,” President Bill Clinton said in 2005 when the congressman celebrated half a century in office. “John Dingell goes on forever.”