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January 31, 2015

Posts in "Culture of Congress"

January 28, 2015

Next Drone Incursion: Reasons to Buzz Capitol Hill

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy arrives at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with a Draganflyer X6 drone last March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy arrives at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with a Draganflyer X6 drone last March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

You have to read to the 128th page of the 131-page rulebook governing the public’s movements and behavior on Capitol Hill. But there it is in Section 16.2.90, tucked between admonitions against flying a kite or taking a nap in the shadow of the Dome.

“The use of model rockets, remote or manually controlled model gliders, model airplanes or unmanned aircrafts, model boats and model cars is prohibited on Capitol grounds.”

Full story

January 27, 2015

How the Presidential Race Threatens the 2016 August Recess

Could scheduling of the 2016 conventions mean a shorter August recess? (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Could scheduling of the 2016 conventions mean a shorter August recess? (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The first voting is almost a full year away, and already the presidential campaign is upsetting the regular rhythms of Congress.

Members with national ambitions regularly complicate their colleagues’ lives by deciding their current jobs must take a back seat to their nascent campaigns. But that process is starting especially early this time: Florida’s Marco Rubio is denying Senate Republicans some potentially pivotal votes on the energy bill so he can spend this week fundraising in California, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul skipped this month’s retreat — where the GOP was hoping to come up with a unified Senate and House agenda for the year.

For the entire congressional community, however, there’s a more significant — and unprecedented — disruption in the works.

Full story

January 21, 2015

The Real Big Speech? The Pope Might Visit Congress

In this undated photo from the archives, Sen. Robert Byrd and Pope John Paul meet at the U.S. Capitol. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In this undated photo found in the Roll Call archives, Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Pope John Paul meet at the Capitol. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Hours before he took the podium, whatever President Barack Obama said Tuesday night was getting eclipsed on the Hill by all the excited chatter about the next person likely to speak before a joint meeting of Congress.

Expectations are growing that Pope Francis will be ascending the House rostrum this fall, becoming the first pontiff ever to visit the Capitol and the most important voice of worldwide moral authority to address lawmakers in person since Nelson Mandela two decades ago. Full story

January 20, 2015

State of the Union: Why Members Keep Showing Up

Sens. Charles E. Grassley, left, chats with Rep. Louie Gohmert, right, with Sen. Chris Coons in the middle, at the State of the Union in 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sens. Charles E. Grassley, left, chats with Rep. Louie Gohmert, right, with Sen. Chris Coons in the middle, at the State of the Union in 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This year there are more defensible rationales than ever for members of Congress to miss the State of the Union address. But there doesn’t seem to be any groundswell of absenteeism in the works.

The seventh year is only exceeded by the eighth as the nadir of any president’s influence — especially when, as with Barack Obama and all four previous two-term presidents, his party controls neither half of Congress. Full story

January 12, 2015

Democratic Committee Assignments Less Than a Zero-Sum Game

Pelosi is in a tough spot when it comes to making committee assignments for the 114th Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Pelosi is making committee assignments for the 114th Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Democrats undeniably remain the fourth and smallest wheel in the congressional machine. And they’re still struggling to apply enough internal political grease to get their pieces of the legislative engine out of neutral.

The party now has its smallest share of House seats in almost nine decades — just 188, or 43 percent. In reality, its disadvantage is even more pronounced. That’s because Republicans have stuck with the custom that the party in control claims more than its fair share of the seats on committees, where the bulk of the chamber’s policy battles are effectively won or lost. Full story

January 6, 2015

Quirky Ceremonies, Curious Characters Mark Hill’s ‘First Day of School’

He's ready for his close-up. Biden's time to shine is in the Old Senate Chamber. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

He’s ready for his close-up. Biden’s time to shine is in the Old Senate Chamber. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If freshman week back in November was the Hill’s equivalent of college orientation, then the formal convening of each Congress is the Capitol’s analogue to the first day of school.

And so it may be useful, for the congressional community as well as the throngs of well-wishers in town just for the festivities, to be reminded of some of the curious ways in which the customs of this day are different from all the others. Full story

December 22, 2014

Languid, Lax Congressional Ethics Disciplinary System May Pick Up Pace in 2015

With a new chairmen — Isakson — in charge on the Senate side, will congressional ethics inquiries on Capitol Hill pick up the pace in 2015? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With a new chairman — Isakson — in charge on the Senate side, will congressional ethics inquiries on Capitol Hill pick up the pace in 2015? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The final flurry of activity aside, it remains undeniable that members of the outgoing Congress accomplished precious little as legislators. Less noticed, but almost as clear, is how the “do-nothing” label also may be affixed to their efforts at policing themselves.

The congressional ethics docket has been extraordinarily quiet the past two years. Given that human nature hasn’t changed, and that money’s potential to poison public service has only been permitted to expand, there’s no reason to believe lawmakers have suddenly and collectively decided to start behaving better.

Full story

December 11, 2014

Congress’ Closing Chaos, as Viewed in the Senate Subway

The Senate subways give a true sense of the vibe on Capitol Hill as the lame-duck session ends. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Democrats like Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Udall are messaging on the constitution. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

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

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).

50RichestLogoThe 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

Cantor may not actually exit for another few months, but he's slowly saying goodbye. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

 (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

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