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March 31, 2015

Posts in "Culture of Congress"

March 24, 2015

A History of Curiosities, Clout for Wisconsin Delegation

Duffy is a member of the always intriguing Wisconsin congressional delegation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Duffy is a member of the historically diverse and interesting Wisconsin congressional delegation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The death last week of Robert W. Kastenmeier, who evolved in the House from a prominent peace crusader into a premier intellectual property protector, is the freshest reminder of an odd truth about the modern Congress.

Wisconsin has produced way more than its fair share of iconoclastic but highly impactful members. Full story

March 3, 2015

Mikulski Legacy Is Beyond Longevity

1996

Mikulski, left, mentored new female senators such as Mary L Landrieu, seen here in the Capitol in 1996. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The most obvious distinction Barbara A. Mikulski will take into retirement is that she’s spent more time in Congress than any other woman, and that’s a record worthy of significant recognition. But, especially at a Capitol so deeply mired in dysfunction and partisanship, the meaning of her service is deeper than mere longevity.

Mikulski has become the embodiment of “old school” in an institution where the thrill of the new has taken hold with a vengeance. Beyond rattling so many glass ceilings during her four decades on the Hill, Maryland’s senior Democratic senator has stuck with all manner of virtues and behaviors that have fallen into disfavor by the newer members — devoted as they are to confrontation and content to claim deadlock as their principal work product. Full story

February 25, 2015

Immigration Testimony Revives a Senate Soap Opera

Laxalt, right, (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Laxalt, right, is the grandfather of the Nevada attorney general who will testify Wednesday. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There are 27 states where the attorney general is a Republican, and 22 of them have signed on to the lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama’s effort to limit deportations. But only one of them is being ushered under the national spotlight Wednesday morning as the single elected official asked to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on “the unconstitutionality of President Obama’s executive overreach.”

Curiously, he’s been in office for less than two months and his state was the most recent to join the litigation, which has become this winter’s newest pivot point in the increasingly acrimonious balance-of-power battle over immigration policy. But almost nothing happens at the Capitol by happenstance, so there are a couple of readily apparent reasons why Nevada Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt would have been chosen as the star witness of the day. Full story

February 18, 2015

Prayer in Congress: Not Just for House and Senate

Protesters gather outside the Supreme Court during arguments over prayer at public meetings and the separation of church and state in November 2013. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Protesters at the Supreme Court during arguments over prayer at public meetings and the separation of church and state in November 2013. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Taxpayer dollars have been used to pay chaplains of the House and Senate since the spring of 1789, when the first of 106 different ordained Christian ministers were elected to those jobs.

Only one of them, however, served as a member of Congress before returning as a man of the cloth: Oliver Cromwell Comstock, who spent three terms as a congressman from upstate New York before becoming a Baptist pastor and returning to the House as chaplain for eight months in 1837.

Now that 19th century politician-preacher has found something akin to a 21st century successor in the form of K. Michael Conaway, a six-term Baptist Republican from Midland, Texas, and the new chairman this year of the House Agriculture Committee. Full story

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

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