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December 22, 2014

Posts in "House"

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 12, 2014

Why Freshman Week Is a Lot Like College Orientation

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The GOP’s 2014 “wave” of senators pose for a photo with Mitch McConnell, the presumed next Senate majority leader. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The notion that Congress is like college usually gets highlighted a few times each year: When members are rushing to meet several legislative deadlines before a lengthy recess, they tend to act very much like students at the end of the semester — pulling all-nighters to cram for exams and churn out papers assigned months ago.

But never is Capitol Hill more like a collegiate campus than in the middle of every even-numbered November, when all the newcomer lawmakers arrive — embodying a yeasty mix of wide-eyed naïveté and intensely competitive focus — to begin learning how dramatically their lives are about to change. It may be officially dubbed New Member Orientation, but those who have lived through it routinely describe it as “freshman week.”

Indoctrination into the formalities and folkways of life as a member of Congress begin Wednesday on both sides of the Hill. Six Republicans who have never held federal office before, joined by four Republicans and a single Democrat preparing to decamp from the House, will spend until Friday being instructed by their new Senate colleagues and some senior staffers on the parliamentary procedures, ethical expectations and bureaucratic necessities of their new workplace. (Two potential GOP Senate freshmen won’t be there because their fates won’t be certain for some time,  thanks to slow ballot counting in Dan Sullivan’s Alaska and the runoff in Rep. Bill Cassidy’s Louisiana.)

A similar series of bipartisan orientation meetings, starting with a massive cocktail party Wednesday evening and lasting until a lottery for office assignments on Nov. 19, is in store for at least 42 Republicans and 17 Democrats who have secured seats in the House. (Hope is still alive for GOP challengers to five Democratic incumbents in races that remain too close to call, and a pair of seats won’t be filled until the Dec. 6 Louisiana runoff.)

Full story

October 28, 2014

Wave Would Mean a Diversity Boost for House GOP

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McSally is in a tossup race against Barber. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After the probability of a Republican takeover of the Senate (for the first time in eight years) and the possibility that more than six governors will be defeated (for the first time in 30 years) comes the other big subplot of the midterm elections: Will Republicans win more than 56 percent of House districts for only the second time since World War II?

Such an achievement — which would require a net gain of nine seats — would be more symbolic than substantive, because the House majority will have essentially the same legislative torque next year whether the roster remains close to its current 233 or grows to the 240s. That appears to be the outer limit of the GOP’s potential for growth, although some late October surprise could allow a bigger wave to build in the campaign’s final days.

But getting to the upper end of that range would be consequential in another way. Realizing pickups in the double digits would require victories by a disproportionate share of the GOP candidates who have not come out of the party’s traditional straight, white male mold. Republicans are on course to expand their female membership and elect at least one black member, and their freshman class could also include a pair of Latinos and two openly gay men.

If many of those people win, and the House Republican Conference is more demographically diverse than ever next year, that could do the party significant good over the long run. Creating a caucus that looks even a little bit more like America, in fact, could be more beneficial in the run-up to 2016 than staging a series of veto showdowns against President Barack Obama in his lame-duck years. 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 16, 2014

The Republican Civil War Takes a Turn for the Cheekily Uncivil

It’s rare, but sometimes an advertisement in Roll Call says as much about the state of congressional political infighting as our coverage.

Such was the case Wednesday. Page 7 provided an exceptionally tart and juicy morsel of insight into the Republican civil war’s summertime state of play.

The sarcastically gleeful full-page ad was the handiwork of Main Street Advocacy, which exists to stick up for the establishment wing of the GOP in part by promoting the re-election of House and Senate incumbents. The butt of the ad was the Club for Growth, which seeks to defeat those same lawmakers whenever they stray from the strictest of party fiscal orthodoxies.

For this year, anyway, the contest is shaping up as a total rout. One of the most influential players in the tea party movement created a special campaign to take out 10 House members — and every one of them was re-nominated with varying degrees of ease. In other words, a perversely “perfect” political showing.

“Main Street Advocacy congratulates our friends at the Club for Growth,” the ad declares in big type, likening the 0-10 record to such exceptional sports feats as Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series, the Miami Dolphins’ perfect NFL season in 1972 and the Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball team’s perfect season in 1976.

The last of those snide analogies was surely a jape aimed squarely at the president of the insurgent group, Chris Chocola, who represented Indiana in the House for two terms from 2003 to 2006. Full story

Congressman of Lost Era Loved Earmarks, Magic Tricks

gray2 445x333 Congressman of Lost Era Loved Earmarks, Magic Tricks

(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 14, 2014

Delayed Benghazi Hearings Equal Deliberate Quiet

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Gowdy is taking a prosecutorial approach as chairman of the special Benghazi committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Whatever happened to that summer blockbuster, the one about terrorism and scandal that would be must-see congressional TV?

Don’t expect to be able to tune in to the Benghazi hearings anytime soon. No air date for the premiere has been announced, because the pre-production work is off to a deliberately slow start.

The reason is that the impresario, Rep. Trey Gowdy, is much more experienced as a prosecutor than as an executive producer. And district attorneys, at least as much as studio moguls, are trained to refrain from going public if they have any doubt about their work being ready for prime time.

For reasons both procedural and political, Gowdy has reached a conclusion 10 weeks after he was handed the gavel of a newly created select House committee: The moment is not nearly ripe for the panel to convene in the open to talk about any events before, during or after Sept. 11, 2012, the night when terrorists overran the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Libya’s second biggest city and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

During his first two terms, Gowdy has gained notoriety as one of Republicans’ most tenacious inquisitors of administration officials, a skill honed during his previous 16 years busting bad guys in South Carolina. His reputation for public zealotry aside, Gowdy understands how caution behind the scenes is the prosecutorial standard.

Many more criminal cases are settled with tidy plea bargains than with of roll-of-the-dice jury trials, and dozens of depositions are taken behind closed doors for every witness cross-examined in open court. The analogue on Capitol Hill is that a whole lot more fact-finding gets done by professional committee investigators away from cameras than by lawmakers posturing in front of them.

Besides, pursuing the inquiry for a while longer before any hearings works to the Republicans’ strategic advantage in several ways.

Full story

July 11, 2014

Boehner’s Bet: Lawsuit Will Quiet Impeachment Calls

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Can Boehner’s lawsuit dampen calls for Obama impeachment? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

More seems curious than straightforward in Speaker John A. Boehner’s current plan for suing President Barack Obama.

But one of the easier things to understand is what the litigation might accomplish inside the House Republican Conference: a cooling of the intensifying and politically problematic talk about how nothing short of impeachment will do.

Legislation to authorize the lawsuit will get its first public hearing on July 16 at the Rules Committee. It’s on course for passage entirely along party lines in two weeks, just before the August recess begins. So it will be toward the end of September, just as Congress is preparing to decamp for the campaign trail, before the House’s lawyers actually take their complaint to the federal courthouse at the foot of Capitol Hill.

That means there’s almost no chance for even a preliminary resolution before the midterm elections. But the schedule will nonetheless provide the infuriated House Republicans several opportunities for venting their bloodlust this summer and fall.

Giving members of the GOP rank and file this way to focus their red meat rhetoric, and their appeals for donations from the hard right, could make calls for impeachment fade, if not quite disappear. And that is what Boehner has made clear he wants.

In this curious way, he is in the same place as his predecessor as speaker, with whom he sees eye-to-eye on next to nothing. Full story

June 25, 2014

Democratic Doves, Threatened Incumbents Complicate President’s Choice on Military Action in Iraq

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Kirkpatrick is one of the Democrats for whom the Iraq funding vote could matter on Nov. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Parsing an important congressional roll call, let alone comparing two votes on similar questions a dozen years apart, is a complex and caveat-infused exercise.

So reactions ranging from “Of course!” and “Aha!” to “Who knew?” and “What’s up with that?” are bound to spring up when reviewing last week’s House vote on funding for a revived combat operation in Iraq — especially when aligning that tally sheet with the one authorizing the initial invasion of the country.

During the three days of debate on the annual defense spending package, most of the lobbying furor and press attention was on Pentagon procurement priorities, the House’s move to stop any transfers from Guantánamo and the drive to curtail government spying. But for hard core hawks and ardent doves, the key vote was about whether to bar any new U.S. combat operations to help quell the sectarian warfare that’s overtaking Iraq.

The outcome wasn’t even close. Just 3 out of every 8 members (165 total) took the anti-war hard line. (Instead, the House adopted by voice vote a requirement that the administration consult and report to Congress before reviving military involvement.)

While the lopsided result preserved all of President Barack Obama’s options for using force, it masks an important political reality he will be pressed to keep in mind during the next five months. Members of his party with the most to lose on Election Day are minimally supportive of any more war under this commander in chief. Full story

June 24, 2014

McCarthy Rewards Insurgents in First Big About-Face

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McCarthy changed his mind on Ex-Im Bank reauthorization. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It took less than 72 hours after his election for Kevin McCarthy to reveal an unambiguous and extremely consequential way he’ll be different from his predecessor.

In what’s looking like the year’s hottest dispute between small-government crowd and the business community, the incoming House majority leader took a surprising side on Sunday. The Californian is joining the hard core fiscal conservatives who want to close the Export-Import Bank, which for eight decades has been one of the main tools at the government’s disposal for helping American businesses.

The agency steps in when private credit is scarce or expensive. Using money borrowed from the Treasury, it either makes or guarantees loans so U.S. companies can expand their exports of aircraft, farm machinery, power generation equipment, telecommunications hardware and even gourmet food. The right reviles this as a prime example of corporate welfare and derides the Ex-Im Bank as an agent of crony capitalism.

During his time in the Republican leadership Eric Cantor was an anchor for the opposite side, which argues that such credit financing is a no-risk way to leverage taxpayer dollars in the interest of creating jobs and sustaining the nation’s manufacturing base. The Virginian was more responsible than anyone else for steering the Ex-Im Bank to temporary safety two years ago, when the waves of conservative criticism first got big enough to pose a potential threat. He was so well known as a defender of the bank that stock in one of its biggest customers, Boeing, plunged 3 percent the day after Cantor lost his primary, wiping away all its gains so far in the year.

The anxiety was fueled in part by anticipation that the Ex-Im Bank’s most influential House critic, Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, would run for majority leader. When he demurred, allowing the majority whip to secure his promotion with ease, the big companies relaxed a bit — because McCarthy had been on Cantor’s side in 2012 in supporting the current reauthorization of the agency.

But all elections have consequences, and two of them were on display when McCarthy revealed his 180-degree change of position on “Fox News Sunday.” The winner’s pivotal bloc of supporters will need to feel rewarded sooner than later, so it was only a matter of time before the new floor leader would need to stake out a strong position on legislation that’s a top priority of his allies in the tea party faction.

Not to mention an important rival who took a pass this time around could change his mind as soon as November, when leadership elections for the 114th Congress will be held. So it made sense for McCarthy to act quickly to shrink some of the ideological daylight between himself and Hensarling. Full story

June 19, 2014

4 Lessons to Ponder After the House Picks a New Majority Leader

Anticlimactic has become the word to describe Thursday’s secret ballot to choose a new House majority leader. Everything points to a solid victory by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California; the only mixed signals are about whether Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho will receive more than 50 votes, a symbolic threshold because that’s more than one-fifth of the 233 members of the Republican Conference.

Absent much suspense, it’s not too soon to consider the most important takeaways from the election. Here are four of them: Full story

June 12, 2014

Cantor Had No Choice but to Step Aside After Defeat

It was impossible to imagine how Eric Cantor was going to remain House majority leader longer than a few more weeks. The biggest surprise is that he’s decided to hang on to his job title, if not really the job’s duties, until the end of July.

By getting soundly defeated in his Republican primary, Cantor made history as the most prominent member ever spurned by his own party for re-election. But that defeat transformed him on Wednesday into something much more immediately consequential: The most tangibly toothless person in the congressional leadership in more than a century.

Gaining the confidence of your party is the basic prerequisite for getting into the Hill hierarchy. Knowing where your caucus wants to be ideologically, and balancing that against where it needs to be, is a central requirement for staying on the leadership team. Making sure your colleagues remain beholden to you, legislatively and politically, is essential for success in the work — which can be described in blunt political terms as the daily gaining and spending of power.

For Cantor, all of that disappeared in a matter of hours on Tuesday, when his bid for an eighth term was rejected by 56 percent of the voters who had been his political base in central Virginia.

The comparison is far from perfect, but that was the closest thing American politics has seen in a long time to a parliamentary vote of no confidence. And when a prime minister is defeated in one of those, he is duty bound to offer his resignation.

A leader would be foolhardy to do otherwise, because such elections immediately drain the loser of every ounce of political capital. Full story

May 15, 2014

DCCC’s Bad Week a Lesson in Political Basics

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Conyers’ ballot blunder in Michigan is just one thing that happened to the DCCC this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s been an undeniably rotten week for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And, just as certainly, the people running the House minority’s political operation have only themselves to blame.

One of the party’s mostly highly touted challengers to capture a seat in Florida abandoned his candidacy on Tuesday, after several holes too many appeared in his biography. Hours later, the party’s most senior incumbent running for re-election became a man without a place in his Michigan primary, after several hundred questionable signatures too many appeared on his ballot petitions.

The unsightly fortunes of both Ed Jany and Rep. John Conyers Jr., it seems clear, could have been avoided had the DCCC orchestrated — or at least insisted on — some minimal political and organizational due diligence.

In Tampa Bay, the problem is irreparable; the Democrats have now given away a House seat that was central to their midterm election goals. In Detroit, the party faces potentially lengthy legal and public relations challenges but in the end won’t have to sweat to hold one of the most lopsidedly Democratic districts in the country. Full story

May 5, 2014

Gowdy Tailor-Made for GOP’s Benghazi Assignment

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(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For those lulled into thinking the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has devolved into nothing more than an over-the-top Hollywood-D.C. mashup schmooze fest, one small scene offered a reminder of how real congressional business can get done in the least likely places.

While the gawking was focused on celebrities like the drummer Questlove and the actor Freida Pinto, three prominent Republicans huddled near the bar at one Saturday evening reception: pollster and messaging savant Frank Luntz, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Trey Gowdy, a conservative second-termer from South Carolina who’s about to take his first step into the national spotlight.

Their body language made clear the conversation was serious, so glad-handers should please stand clear. Still, it’s safe to assume the talk touched on the House GOP leadership’s decision to reverse course and establish a select House committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Monday that Gowdy would be the chairman, because he’s “as dogged, focused and serious-minded as they come.”

For the Republicans, creating the panel is a high-reward as well as a high-risk proposition. On the one hand, its hearings are guaranteed to excite and solidify the party’s conspiratorial and conservative base right through the campaign season, while forcing the White House to keep playing defense on another high-profile front and making life particularly unpleasant for Hillary Rodham Clinton (who was secretary of State during the attack) just as she’s deciding whether to run for president in 2016.

On the other hand, its work will subject the GOP to criticism that perpetuating congressional interest in an incident that eight Hill committees have already hashed over is an especially wrong focus in this election year, which should be about promoting policies to put more people to work at home instead of more costly political theatrics about a foreign policy foul-up.

But for the House’s newest would-be chairman, the next six months represent a career-altering opportunity with more potential upsides than downsides. Full story

April 9, 2014

History Lesson for McAllister: Members Caught Pursuing Staffers Never Survive

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McAllister needs only to look to former Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana to see how Republican leadership deals with members’ affairs with staffers. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

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