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December 19, 2014

Posts in "Culture of Congress"

December 11, 2014

Congress’ Closing Chaos, as Viewed in the Senate Subway

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The Senate subways can offer a true sense of the vibe on Capitol Hill as the lame-duck session comes to an end. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For a sense of what this climactic week for the 113th Congress feels like, a well-timed visit to the Capitol’s main subway platform will do the trick.

On a quiet day, the station tucked beneath the Senate’s ceremonial steps is about as antiseptic as it gets, the dull white walls and fluorescent lighting more reminiscent of a mid-century hospital than one of the true “corridors of power” in the most powerful government on Earth. Full story

December 9, 2014

What the Landrieu Adieu Says About the 2015 Senate

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Cassidy’s victory over Landrieu shifts the power dynamic in both the Senate and the South. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Now that Louisiana’s voters have added their crushing coda to this year’s Republican sweep, many of the ways in which next year’s Senate will be different have locked in place.

The most obvious change has been known since election night: The GOP will be in charge for the first time in eight years. But now we know Republicans will occupy 54 seats starting in January, strength in numbers they’ve exceeded in only six years of the previous three decades.

Beyond that, the defeat of Democrat Mary L. Landrieu — she took just 44 percent and lost her bid for a fourth term representing Louisiana by 151,000 votes in a runoff against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy — will further shift senatorial demographics and political dynamics on several fronts.

Full story

December 1, 2014

The Opaque World of Committee Assignments

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How did Young, a freshman-to-be, end up with a committee assignment on Appropriations? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One of the older truisms routinely applied to politicians is, “Where you stand is where you sit.” In other words, their ideology flows clearly from their life experience. And on Capitol Hill, there is this corollary: “Where you sit is what you do.”

That neatly summarizes the importance of committee assignments in the lives of so many lawmakers. And it helps explain why two dozen favored members of the next Congress got to breathe big sighs of relief before Thanksgiving, while all the others are returning for the rest of the lame-duck session to confront complex battles for the remaining placements.

The jockeying and suspense will be especially acute in the House. Its 435 seats make specialization something close to a job requirement, so committee membership takes on outsize importance in driving each member’s legislative priorities and perceived areas of expertise — and in many cases fundraising focus as well. That helps explain why campaigning for a good assignment is an essential focus during every newly elected member’s two-month transition to office, and why the party leaders act as the gatekeepers of membership.

It’s a very different situation in the Senate. Because of statewide constituencies, each senator has a vested interest in becoming familiar with several different areas of public policy. With almost 400 committee seats but only 100 people to fill them, each senator is guaranteed a spot on at least one of the most powerful panels. And because of the seniority system’s continued sway over the institution, the veterans generally get the pick of the litter and the newcomers are left to choose from the best of the rest.

All that, plus the uncertainty of the runoff in Louisiana, means returning senators won’t know for sure about openings on the so-called A committees until the second week in December, with freshmen left waiting to start assessing targets of opportunity.

In the House, the biggest winners have already been announced. Nine Republicans first elected in 2010 and nine from the Class of 2012 (including a pair of subsequent special-election winners) have been tapped for the committees with the most powerful legislative jurisdictions, which therefore provide their membership with the most robust flows of campaign cash. That’s Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Ways and Means. Another three seats on the banking panel and two on the spending panel were awarded to incoming freshmen. Full story

November 19, 2014

Election Trivia for Political Wonks, Part 2

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Two of these senators make our election trivia for being re-elected in 2014 by smaller-than-expected margins, despite being in safe seats. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Maybe the lovers of congressional curiosities still haven’t mined the 2014 election results for all the political and institutional trivia pushed toward the surface.

An initial potpourri was offered Tuesday in this space — fun and sometimes consequential facts that go beyond the historic statistics that put context behind Republicans’ midterm sweep. That, of course, is the GOP’s current net gain of 11 House seats assures them their largest majority since the Truman administration, and their potential pickup of nine Senate seats would be the biggest boost for either party since 1980.

A special election held on Nov. 4 means Congress now has its 100th voting female member for the first time, in North Carolina Democrat Alma Adams, and the midterms assured more diversity in the coming year. Debbie Dingell of Michigan has become the first person elected to the House as successor to a living spouse, for example, and the arrival of Baptist pastors Jody Hice of Georgia and Mark Walker of North Carolina (both Republicans) will expand to six the roster of Protestant ministers in the House.

(You can learn more about the members-elect in our Guide to the New Congress.)

Here is another collection of trivia questions and answers designed to provide insight into the meaning, consequences and oddities of the 2014 cycle. See Part I here.

Full story

November 18, 2014

Election Trivia for Political Wonks, Part 1

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Lankford gets an entry in our 2014 political trivia — the senator-elect will be joining a state colleague with the same first name. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

For those fond of congressional political and historical arcana (and count me among them) every second November produces a treasure trove of statistics and other fun facts — some that help illustrate the trends of the election past, others that point toward likely story lines of the Congress to come.

Hill dwellers who paid even minimal attention to the midterms probably have committed a handful of the most important of these to memory: Republicans boosted their ranks by 5 percent in the House, but by at least 18 percent in the Senate (20 percent if the Louisiana runoff goes their way). John Barrow’s defeat will leave the House without a single white Democrat from the Deep South for the first time ever. At 30 years and four months, Republican Elise Stefanik of New York is now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. And the balance of power in Congress was decided by just 36 percent of eligible voters – the smallest turnout for any federal election since 1942.

Here are some post-election trivia questions — and answers — that may provide some modest insight into the meaning, consequences or just plain oddities of campaign 2014. We’ll post the second half on Wednesday.

Answer: Kentucky.

Question: What will be the fifth state, as of January, to produce two Senate majority leaders?

Republican Mitch McConnell will become only the 24th person in the position since it was formally created in 1911. His Bluegrass State predecessor, Alben W. Barkley, ran the Senate on behalf of the Democrats for a decade starting in 1937 and later was Harry Truman’s vice president. Maine is the only other state that was home to a majority leader from each party: Republican Wallace H. White Jr. (1947-49) and Democrat George Mitchell (1989-95).

The other states have produced only GOP leaders: John W. Kern (1913-15) and James E. Watson (1929-33) from Indiana, Charles Curtis (1923-29) and Bob Dole (1985-86 and 1995-96) from Kansas, and Howard H. Baker Jr. (1981-85) and Bill Frist (2003-07) from Tennessee.

Answer: Massachusetts and Georgia.

Question: Which states saw the most House members elected without major-party opposition?

Two-thirds of the Bay State’s seats (six of nine) went uncontested by the GOP, guaranteeing victories for Democrats Richard E. Neal, Jim McGovern, Joseph P. Kennedy III, Katherine M. Clark, Michael E. Capuano and Stephen F. Lynch. But seven from Georgia (half the winners) also ran unopposed. They are Democratic Reps. Hank Johnson, John Lewis and David Scott; Republican Reps. Lynn Westmoreland, Austin Scott and Tom Graves; and GOP freshman-elect Barry Loudermilk.

(Thirteen Republicans and seven Democrats in 10 other states were similarly unchallenged — including one more newcomer, Texan John Radcliffe, who defeated Rep. Ralph M. Hall in the GOP primary.)

Answer: Jeff Sessions. 

Question: Who was the first senator in four years to win re-election without any opponent from a major party?

He faced no Democrat on Nov. 4 and no one else from the GOP in the Alabama primary. (Though he still managed to spend $1 million.) He took 52 percent in 1996, when he became only the second Republican elected to the Senate from the state since Reconstruction, and won his previous two races with 59 percent and then 63 percent. The last unopposed senator, in 2010, was Republican John Thune of South Dakota. But such victories are not necessarily a predictor of future electoral comfort. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor didn’t even have a token GOP challenger when he won his second term six years ago, and this year he was swept out of office with Rep. Tom Cotton claiming almost 57 percent of the vote. Could that have something to do with why Thune already has stockpiled an astonishing $9.5 million for his 2016 race in his low-cost state?

Answer: Texas.

Question: Which state looks to provide at least four, but probably six, of the 21 chairmen of House standing committees next year?

It’s a delegation dominance of panel leadership not matched in modern times. (The closest was 20 years ago, when five California Democrats were full committee chairmen.) In the 114th Congress, four Lone Star State Republicans are sure to keep the gavels they now hold: Jeb Hensarling at Financial Services, Michael McCaul at Homeland Security, Pete Sessions at Rules and Lamar Smith at Science, Space and Technology. They are likely to be joined by K. Michael Conaway at Agriculture and Mac Thornberry at Armed Services.

No other state will have more than two House chairmen in the new year. Michigan will continue to have Fred Upton at Energy and Commerce, along with Candice S. Miller at House Administration, but that’s a mighty comedown from the Wolverine State’s current power profile. In the House, Upton and Miller are joined by Dave Camp at Ways and Means and Mike Rogers at Intelligence, while in the Senate, Armed Services is under the purview of Carl Levin and Agriculture is run by Debbie Stabenow. (All but Stabenow are retiring, and she will be in the minority party.)

Across the Capitol, two different states might have both senators as committee chairmen in 2015. From Tennessee, that’s Bob Corker at Foreign Relations and Lamar Alexander at Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. From Alabama, it’s Richard C. Shelby at Banking, and probably Jeff Sessions at Budget.

Answer: James.

Question: What’s the only name that will be shared by a state’s pair in the Senate?

James Lankford will join fellow Republican James M. Inhofe as the senators from Oklahoma. (Both of them normally answer to “Jim.”) The last time a Senate delegation shared the same first name was 2012, when the 23 years of shared service for Hawaii by the two Daniel K.’s — Inouye and Akaka — came to an end. The Hawaii lawmakers also were born just four days apart, in Honolulu in September 1924, whereas Inhofe is 33 years older than his new peer.

Related:

Camp Out, Rough Week: Michigan Delegation Facing Depleted Hill Clout

Lone State Lawmakers Transcend Politics — Sometimes

Without an Opponent, Jeff Sessions Still Spends

Guide to the New Congress

Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat

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September 10, 2014

Campaign Money Debate Won’t Help Hill’s Reputation

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Senate Democrats, such as (from left) Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse, are messaging on the Constitution. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s nothing more than another Senate floor sideshow this week, a stage-managed debate in slow motion where the ultimate outcome is such a decisive and foreordained defeat that almost no one is paying attention.

Paying short shrift to the campaign finance constitutional amendment may be understandable, especially in light of the two imminently consequential matters lawmakers must tackle before decamping to campaign: Voting to keep the government open beyond the election and deciding how to take a stand on the coming military intervention in Syria.

But passively perpetuating the enormous role of money in politics for another year, and with nothing more than a passionless “messaging vote,” is worrisome for a couple of reasons for anyone concerned about the badly frayed institutional reputation of Congress.

For one thing, such cavalier handling of a possible change to the Constitution can only intensify the perception that lawmakers rarely place seriousness of purpose ahead of politics.

The public had come to expect the legislative decks will be cleared for the rare deliberations of constitutional amendments, which is what happened when three such matters have come before the Senate in the past decade. (Republican proposals mandating balanced federal budgets, permitting laws against flag desecration and banning gay marriage all came up far short of the two-thirds majorities required.) But this time the Democrats are willing to let their bold idea for reconfiguring the Bill of Rights fade away with a routine walk-off-the-floor roll call. (Wednesday’s procedural voice vote set the stage for the disposative  party-line tally Thursday afternoon.)

For another thing, such a quick sidestepping of the issue will make it even more difficult next time to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to congressional collaboration.

The growing consensus, at least from the outside, is that the torrent of cash coursing into House and Senate campaigns is a main reason the Capitol has become such a dysfunctional mess — and there is no reversal in sight. Other really big institutionalized contributions to the problem include the partisan nature of redistricting and the polarizing of debate on television and online. So a good answer to the question, “What’s poisoning Congress?” starts with the simple mnemonic of the three Ms: money, maps and media. Full story

Heirs Out, Entrepreneurs In on 50 Richest List

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Black has a minimum net worth of at least $21.24 million. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Ten years ago, the 50 wealthiest members of Congress were 60 percent Republican even though the GOP held 52 percent of all the seats — just like this time. Then, as now, all the lawmakers on the roster were white, no more than 1 in 5 was a woman and a dozen of them had spouses to thank for the bulk of their money.

But, for all those partisan and demographic echoes, the new roster of Roll Call’s 50 Richest reveals how the economic and political upheavals of the past decade have altered the nature of affluence on Capitol Hill.

The heir to the family fortune has become an endangered species at the apex of congressional wealth. Now it’s dominated by the self-made multimillionaire. And the shift is entirely because of the changing face of the Republicans.

Back in 2004, five GOP senators and 10 GOP House members were among Congress’ richest 1 percent principally because of their inheritance — fortunes made in glass, textiles, real estate, appliances, hospitals, farming, frozen food, publishing and banking. This year the comparable roster has shrunk to just four: Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin (a great-grandfather engineered the success of Kimberly-Clark) and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey (descended from a Procter & Gamble founder) remain from a decade ago and have been joined by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio (his dad built one of the nation’s biggest heavy-equipment distributors) and Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida (a granddad started the Pittsburgh Steelers).

50RichestLogo 240x240 Heirs Out, Entrepreneurs In on 50 Richest ListThe 2014 list includes 22 Republicans (four are senators) who can point to their own business acumen as the reasons their minimum net worth exceeded $7.7 million at the end of last year. Ten years ago, there were only a dozen such Republicans.

In other words, the GOP trust funders who have fallen off the roster since 2004 have been replaced almost one-for-one by GOP entrepreneurs. (The number of Democrats who are really rich thanks to either family money or the fruits of their own labors is essentially unchanged.) Full story

July 30, 2014

The Almost Invisible Final Days of a Once-Forceful Leader

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 (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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

Why a Namesake Post Office Is All Barry Goldwater Might Get This Year

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

Congressman of Lost Era Loved Earmarks, Magic Tricks

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(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Members in Waiting: The 20 Candidates Headed to D.C.

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Beyer is likely headed to Congress with little effort. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

A Polarized Society as GOP Selects House Leaders

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During the government shutdown debate last fall, Scott Osberg of the District protested. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Obama’s Hill Relations No Picnic, Though There Is One

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

What Cochran Vs. Lott Said About Today’s GOP Civil War

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Cochran primary supporters in DeSoto County, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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

Veteran Voices, Influence Fade on the Hill

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None of the veterans in this 2008 photo are currently serving in Congress, an illustration of the dwindling numbers of military members on the Hill. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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 a dozen House members and one senator, recently appointed Democrat 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.

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