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April 24, 2014

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April 9, 2014

History Lesson for McAllister: Members Caught Pursuing Staffers Never Survive

toyotahearing007 022410 445x296 History Lesson for McAllister: Members Caught Pursuing Staffers Never Survive

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

March 9, 2014

Issa’s Antics Again Try GOP’s Patience, Complicate Party’s Message

issa 027 010413 445x297 Issas Antics Again Try GOPs Patience, Complicate Partys Message

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If Congress can sometimes be fairly compared to the fabled Faber College of “Animal House,” then Darrell Issa is the latest character to get marked for “double secret probation.”

The chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee did what he had to do to minimize the immediate political damage he inflicted on his House GOP colleagues last week. He swallowed his considerable pride and reversed his defiant rhetorical course to apologize to Maryland’s Elijah E. Cummings for peremptorily cutting off the microphone the panel’s senior Democrat was just starting to use, drawing a finger across his throat and turning his back and walking out of their March 5 hearing.

And the Californian made his de minimus mea culpa within 36 hours, so memories of the ugly incident might fade a bit before Congress returns for the new week.

But the disdain stirred up in the Democrats, the annoyance revealed by many Republicans and the dismay expressed by institutionalists in both parties won’t disappear. Footage of the incident quickly went viral, and surely will be revived for the foreseeable future to illustrate stories about heightened partisan tensions, lowered standards of decorum or intensified investigative zealotry at the Capitol.

That is why Issa has assured lasting trouble for himself, especially in his own ranks. For the final nine months of his term-limited time with the Oversight gavel, expect him to be under a very tight leadership leash. Full story

February 25, 2014

Debbie Dingell Eyes a Curious Glass Ceiling in Readying House Run

ford statue007 050311 445x296 Debbie Dingell Eyes a Curious Glass Ceiling in Readying House Run

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If Debbie Dingell wins the campaign she’s formally launching on Friday — a solid if not quite certain bet — she’ll make history in more than the obvious way.

She would be keeping one House seat in the same family well into a ninth decade, but would also become the first person to ever come to Congress as the successor to a living spouse.

That might sound like an amazing distinction to modern ears, given how control over accounting firms, law offices, medical practices and other small businesses now pass relatively routinely to the younger half of a married couple when the older person (usually the husband) tires of the daily grind. And in Washington, D.C., of course, the dominant political story is whether Hillary Rodham Clinton will end up getting the same government job her husband had for eight years.

But congressional political dynamics have proved remarkably resistant to this sort of evolution in family and gender roles. Full story

February 24, 2014

The Dean Is Done: 59 Years Will Be Enough for the Cunning and Complex John Dingell

dingell010 061313 445x297 The Dean Is Done: 59 Years Will Be Enough for the Cunning and Complex John Dingell

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

John D. Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, and easily the most overpoweringly influential House chairman of this generation, is calling an end to his own era.

A complex and cunning Democrat who is in his 59th year of representing the Detroit area and who will turn 88 in July, Dingell announced Monday that he would retire at the end of the year rather than seek a 30th full term. The news floored the Capitol, where almost no one in the workaday population has known life without his presence.

“Presidents come and presidents go,” President Bill Clinton said in 2005 when the congressman celebrated half a century in office. “John Dingell goes on forever.”

Full story

February 18, 2014

Why House Democrats’ Twin Discharge Drives Are Likely Duds

This recess week affords enough quiet at the Capitol that you can almost hear House Republicans getting into a defensive crouch. It’s their best posture for preventing exposures of internal discord, the sort of fractious drama that could do as much as anything to sap their advantages this midterm election year.

House Democrats see the protective shell receding and are determined to pry it loose. But their tools are limited. And the one they’ve been talking about most enthusiastically in recent days — the discharge petition — has a high probability of failure.

It’s almost certainly not going to realize the stated legislative objective, which is to break the deadlock created by conservatives on both immigration and increasing the minimum wage. But neither is it likely to produce the unstated political objective, which is to push the GOP into looking like the sort of discordant and mean-spirited mess that’s undeserving of running the House for another two years.

The reason for those predictions is the same on both counts. There just aren’t enough genuine moderates in the Republican conference, nor a sufficient number of endangered GOP incumbents, to give either discharge petition a chance for success. Full story

February 12, 2014

‘Taking One for the Team’ Isn’t a Concept Boehner Can Rely On

People looking for clues about the current strength and future prospects of John A. Boehner’s speakership should come to one conclusion: He can no longer count on Republicans taking one for the team.

There’s evidence in Tuesday’s debt limit vote to support the view that he pulled off a neat sleight of hand to shield his conference from another self-inflicted wound. But there’s at least as much evidence that Boehner’s control over the outcome was much more tenuous than it could have been — or should have been if his aim is to quell the speculation about his future in the House.

Soon after 28 Republicans joined 193 Democrats to pass legislation lifting the debt ceiling for the next year without any conditions, my colleagues Matt Fuller and Emma Dumain reported this fascinating fact: It was the fewest number of votes from a majority for a bill that passed the House since at least 1991.

That would appear to be the final nail in the strategic coffin for the increasingly sidestepped “Hastert Rule,” which dictates that every bill GOP leadership puts to a vote must muster a majority from the majority.

In the few hours before the roll call, but after Boehner announced his tactical surrender in the four-year debt limit war, he made clear he wasn’t out to run up the score for his position. Instead, he said he would revert to the traditional way of handling the politically problematic need to increase Treasury borrowing: The president’s party would be expected to pull most of the weight. Full story

February 5, 2014

Republican Hedges His Bets by Targeting House Seats in 4 States

There have been a fair share of congressional carpetbaggers in history, but Allan Levene may be the first to assemble an entire set of matched luggage. And he’s using it to run this year for no fewer than four open House seats in four different states.

In a year when the roster of candidates is filled with the usual collection of career politicians, war veterans, minor celebrities and hard-luck cases, Levene stands apart. He’s a 64-year-old information technology expert, financial planner and sometime inventor who is “willing to offer myself up wherever required” in order to get to Washington — because he’s so convinced of his aptitude as a policymaker, so concerned about his life expectancy and so worried about his country.

“I simply cannot stand aside,” Levene declared during an expansive 30-minute conversation with me on his cellphone Wednesday morning. “I am ready to strike a chord, and I believe I will.”

To make a fascinating story short, what he amply manifests in ego and aspiration he totally lacks in political acumen. He doesn’t stand a chance in Minnesota, Michigan, Hawaii or Georgia, where he’s actually lived for the past three decades. Full story

February 3, 2014

Tea Party Class More Confrontational Than Ever

The atmospherics offered plenty of clues, but the numbers don’t lie: The House was an even more polarized and partisan place last year than it was when the tea party class of Republicans took over the place two years before. And that’s in part because those lawmakers have grown even more antagonistic to President Barack Obama’s agenda — and even more willing to toe the party line.

That is among the central takeaways from CQ Roll Call’s analysis of 2013 congressional voting patterns, the latest installment in an annual study that began six decades ago.

While Obama got his way on 57 percent of the congressional votes on which he staked a position, a fifth-year success rate exceeded only by George W. Bush among the past four re-elected presidents, that was almost entirely because of a record amount of support from his Democratic colleagues running the Senate.

In the House, Obama had his way on just 21 percent of the votes he clearly cared about, and that was because the average member of the Republican majority voted his way only 12 percent of the time, the smallest measure of presidential support any caucus has ever recorded for a Democratic president.

Twelve percent was also the exact amount of support Obama received from the 65 members who remain from the Class of 2010. (Eighty GOP members who had never before served in Congress were elected that year.) But it’s notable that the median went down a whopping 9 points since 2011, the first year those lawmakers were in Washington.

In other words, the group who voted against Obama 4 out of 5 times as brand-new freshmen disagreed with him 7 out of 8 times as first-year sophomores. The substance of the votes taken over the two years was different, so I can’t make a precise apples-to-apples comparison. But the trend would seem to contradict a conventional wisdom about the modern Congress: Even those who arrive with the most revolutionary fervor tend to buff away some of their roughest ideological edges after a couple of years.

In fact, 30 of those elected in the tea party wave saw their presidential support scores decline by more than 10 points from 2011 to 2013, suggesting that many have concluded they are safe in shifting their voting patterns further to the right now that they have secured their first re-election. Full story

February 2, 2014

Sober Look at the Depth Chart Intensifies for House Democrats

waxman013014 445x286 Sober Look at the Depth Chart Intensifies for House Democrats

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

With the departure of Henry A. Waxman, the seventh member of his caucus to announce retirement, Democrats will be saying farewell to more than a century and a half of House experience come January. Potential losses by just a couple of veterans in tough midterm races would cost the party six more decades of expertise.

The evolving brain drain has observers of Congress asking several questions: Who in the Democratic Caucus is ready to join the party’s legislative power players? Is that new generation going to be dominated by bipartisan deal-makers or liberal ideologues? Will seniority fade as a predictor of prominence? When will the collective grip of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s team start to slip? How many topflight legislators will be willing to labor at the margins until the Democrats retake the House, given that their next solid shot might not come until the next decade?

The internal dynamics are fluid enough that few clear answers are apparent, and the most adept and ambitious House Democrats are savvy enough to know it’s too early for open boasting about why they should move up the depth chart.

But their legislative top tier is undeniably on the backside of a generational changeover. Full story

January 13, 2014

Will Miller’s Exit Leave Pelosi Too Lonely at the Top?

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Is the retirement of Miller, center, a sign that Pelosi, left, is considering leaving Congress soon as well? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The long list of George Miller’s prominent official titles being unfurled is a reminder of why he is easily the most important member of the current Congress who has announced a retirement.

But his informal position — at the very center of  Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle — makes Monday’s news of his planned departure especially consequential.

Miller has been her uniquely influential patron, confidant, consigliere, travel buddy and liberal soul mate during the past three decades. More than any other lawmaker, he made and has maintained his fellow Californian’s hold on power in the House Democratic Caucus. Full story

January 10, 2014

An Ethics Conflict Avoidance Period?

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Biggert was named to the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This week’s belated appointment of two new board members for the Office of Congressional Ethics suggests the independent watchdog agency is approaching the sixth anniversary of its creation with a fading shroud of controversy.

Judy Biggert, a Republican member of the House Ethics Committee during a particularly charged period, from 2001 through 2006, was Speaker John A. Boehner’s pick for the GOP opening. Biggert, who lost her bid in 2012 for an eighth term representing the Chicago suburbs, played a central role in the investigations and admonitions that led to the eventual downfall of her own majority leader, Tom DeLay, and in the investigation that found her leadership inattentive to House pages’ allegations of sexual advances by a GOP colleague, Florida’s Mark Foley.

Belinda Pinckney, an executive consultant and retired brigadier general, was chosen by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for the Democratic opening. Pinckney’s final military job, from 2007 to 2010, was as the Army’s top diversity officer. Earlier in her career, she was on the Pentagon’s team of liaisons to the Appropriations committees.

They are replacing a pair of former House members, Minnesota Republican Bill Frenzel and California Democrat Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who had been on the board since the start but had been due for replacements for the past year. Five other original members remain, and look to do so for at least another year.

The office was created in 2008 to fulfill a Pelosi campaign promise — to “drain the swamp of corruption” at the Capitol — that was made on the way to winning House control in the previous midterm. The premise was to reduce the perception that the foxes were guarding the hen house in the House’s ethics process. So they turned some of the process over to an independent, bipartisan and knowledgeable panel, which would take on the initial job of reviewing and investigating allegations of misconduct by members and staff — and referring credible matters within three months to the Ethics Committee. That House panel still retains sole power to decide if the chamber’s rules or federal laws were broken and to propose sanctions by the full House. (There is no similar system in the Senate.) Full story

December 18, 2013

With His BFF Leaving, Is Boehner Eyeing the Exit, Too?

boehner121813 445x296 With His BFF Leaving, Is Boehner Eyeing the Exit, Too?

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

With the postmortems of this year’s biggest congressional events winding down, it’s not too early to start forecasting the top Hill stories of the year ahead.

Whatever happens in the career of John A. Boehner is sure to make the list.

If he makes good on his own current assertions by securing a third consecutive term as speaker of the House, that will be one of the more notable events at the Capitol in 2014. That’s because it would seal a total turnabout from the shaky hold he had on his power only a few weeks ago and would mean he’s engineered an uneasy truce in the Republican Party’s war with itself.

If he says he wants to stay in the top job, and his colleagues turn him down, that would be an enormously bigger deal. That’s because it would mark yet another reversal of his fortunes, no speaker has been turned out by his own colleagues in more than a century, and such an insurrection would mean the GOP’s ideological civil war would surely rage on.

But if he calls it quits, by relinquishing the speaker’s gavel or maybe even his congressional district in southwestern Ohio, that would be an outcome somewhere between those first two on the importance continuum. (All of these scenarios are predicated on the safe prediction that the GOP will retain control of the House for the 114th Congress.) While such a decision would assure a fascinating fight for the caucus leadership, it would say less about the party’s future than about Boehner’s fascinatingly evolving personality.

Still, it’s the “Boehner is about to hang it up” narrative that’s captivated the rumor mill this week. That talk is based on only one new piece of information, albeit an extremely important one: Tom Latham is retiring. Full story

December 11, 2013

Will Paul Ryan’s High-Risk Budget Deal Return High Rewards?

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Ryan addresses his budget deal at a GOP leadership press conference Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

This week is a turning point in the career of Paul D. Ryan — one that’s even more consequential than what happened to him 16 months ago.

Being picked to be the Republican nominee for vice president, it turns out, is only guaranteed to be politically transformative if your ticket wins the general election. Engineering a genuinely bipartisan if undeniably modest budget agreement, on the other hand, is sure to change the trajectory of the 43-year-old Wisconsin congressman’s life.

Ryan will find out within a matter of hours whether the deal has propelled his ambitions forward, or accelerated his long-rising star toward oblivion.

By Wednesday evening, a day after the deal was unveiled, a ratification vote by the full House looked more and more likely. It also looked quite possible that most of Ryan’s fellow Republicans would be on board, even though all the major conservative advocacy groups are pressing for its defeat. Those outcomes are the only legislative mysteries; a solid bipartisan majority is lined up in the Senate, and President Barack Obama is eager to affix his signature.

House passage would be profoundly rewarding for Ryan for several reasons, especially if his plan secures a majority of the majority. Full story

December 4, 2013

Purse Strings Passed to a Different Sort of Republican

roby graves 056 100413 445x289 Purse Strings Passed to a Different Sort of Republican

Roby, center, was one of three new conservatives named to the House Appropriations panel Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Three weeks ago, and thanks mainly to the seniority system, an unusual midyear rearrangement of the House Appropriations power structure produced promotions for a quartet of relatively moderate and old-school Republicans.

But on Wednesday, when three vacancies were filled on the committee that decides where the money goes, the winners were a decidedly different sort: Martha Roby of Alabama, Mark Amodei of Nevada and Chris Stewart of Utah are all small-government conservatives from the legion of tea-party-inspired newcomers who have secured control over the House GOP’s ideological center of gravity.

All of them voted against Speaker John A. Boehner’s wishes on both of the most politically important spending votes of this year. Each not only opposed the January legislation delivering an expansive (but not offset) package of recovery and reconstruction aid to Hurricane Sandy victims but also voted against the October bill ending the partial government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling with no anti-Obamacare strings attached.

Yet all have remained in decent favor with their GOP elders, because they’ve steered clear of the boldest confrontational tactics espoused by their most tea-party-infused colleagues.

At the same time, they’ve all branded themselves back home — where their districts are deep red — as so reliably conservative that they have no worries about primary challenges from the right.

For all those reasons, the selection of the trio suggests the Republican leadership is looking to cultivate a different breed for the next generation of appropriators: members with unimpeachable but not melodramatic commitments to fiscal discipline, with enough insider savvy to compensate for a bit of an independent streak, and with a willingness to devote their House careers to the tough trade-offs required in thinning both domestic and defense programs. Full story

November 13, 2013

4 Centrists Get Money Seats in Appropriations Gavel Shuffle

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House Appropriations Committee executed a rare midterm leadership shuffle Wednesday.

Four subcommittee chairmanships changed hands just in time for the drafting of whatever measure might bring this year’s spending deliberations to another way-behind-schedule conclusion. And all the shifting gavels were delivered to veteran Republicans who stand out as moderates on their party’s tilted-to-the-right ideological spectrum.

That should in no way be interpreted as a sign of any changing balance of power in the Republican Conference, where the hard-line budget conservatives look to dominate just as they have for the past three years.

Instead, the fact that the winners were all centrists should be seen as evidence that seniority and leadership reliability still provide some benefits in Republican circles. It’s also a reminder that the sort of GOP lawmakers who choose to devote their careers to deciding where the money goes are by and large a fiscally malleable lot.

The altered assignments mean a changed membership for one-third of the group known all over Capitol Hill as the college of cardinals. The allusion to the power players of the Catholic Church is not only because of the significant unilateral power these chairmen have to reward or restrict federal agencies through subtle tugs on the federal purse strings. It also refers to their somewhat secretive code of conduct for rewarding colleagues in both parties who embrace the panel’s spending culture — and punishing those who don’t.

This latter code has frayed somewhat since earmarking became verboten and the GOP majority unified behind the goal of cutting the discretionary part of the budget that appropriators control. But it still remains solidly in force at the margins. And so — if a comprehensive omnibus spending package is going to be written to dictate spending for the 35 weeks after Jan. 15, when the current continuing resolution expires — the four new and repositioned chairmen, along with their eight colleagues, will each be called on to quickly bless hundreds of small trade-offs and compromises.

“Being an Appropriations cardinal is an incredibly important job with great responsibility,” said Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky, because lawmakers must be “responsible and pragmatic leaders who get the job done.” That’s a rare characteristic in the total-budget-breakdown era of the moment.

Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Mike Simpson of Idaho are being promoted to more influential subcommittee chairmanships. Ken Calvert of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma are getting gavels for the first time.

All four were in the GOP minority that voted with most Democrats to enact the fiscal-cliff deal on New Year’s Day and to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling with almost no strings attached last month. On mostly party lines last year, Calvert hung with the mainstream as often as the average House Republican; the other three had below-average party unity scores.

Simpson and Cole are currently seen as among the members closest to Speaker John A. Boehner, who has frequently deputized them as his surrogates. Oklahoman Cole, for instance, is already representing the interest of the appropriators as one of the four House GOP budget conferees.

The unusual midyear switching comes on the heels of departures by three senior Republicans: C.W. Bill Young of Florida died last month, and Louisiana’s Rodney Alexander and Alabama’s Jo Bonner both resigned their seats over the summer to begin alternative careers.

As was universally expected, Frelinghuysen will take over the Defense subcommittee, where Young held the top GOP seat for almost two decades. With or without a continued sequester, the panel and its Senate counterpart are assigned to allocate slightly more than half of all discretionary money.

Now in his 10th term representing some of the richest exurban towns in New Jersey, where his family has been a political power since the Revolution (yes, that first one), Frelinghuysen is known as a shrewd, if low-key, deal-maker. As one of the House GOP’s more prominent social moderates, he remains an ardent advocate for defense spending but predicts Pentagon budgets are beyond their post-Sept. 11 high-water marks.

Unlike so many defense power players in recent decades, who pushed to steer vast sums from the military-industrial complex back home, Frelinghuysen has just two obvious parochial interests: His district is home to an Army arsenal and the corporate headquarters of defense contractor Honeywell.

Idaho’s Simpson is taking the Energy and Water Development chairmanship that Frelinghuysen has relinquished. The panel’s $30 billion-plus purview extends beyond atomic weapons and nuclear cleanup programs to include all federal dams, waterways and power systems.

This chairmanship will permit Simpson to boast that he’s better positioned than ever to protect the Snake River Valley that’s the economic lifeblood of his state. But his role as an even-more-powerful appropriator will cut both ways: He faces one of the most intense primary challenges of any incumbent — from attorney Bryan Smith, who is raising significant sums thanks to his endorsement by the conservative Club for Growth.

Simpson has been chairman of the Interior-Environment panel; its gavel will now fall to Calvert, a relatively low-key 11th-termer who holds a safe seat in the outer suburbs southeast of Los Angeles. His spending bill, with a grand total of $24 billion to $28 billion, depending on the sequester, is always among the most contentious because it is a magnet for policy riders about environmental regulation.

Alexander’s departure opens up the Legislative Branch panel — it allocates about $4 billion for the operations of Congress and its affiliated operations — and Bonner’s departure meant Cole has just enough seniority to claim what’s customarily the least-sought-after subcommittee chairmanship.

A previous chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Cole should be keenly attuned to the sort of hyper-retail politics that make this cardinal (along with the chairman of the House Administration Committee) something like the mayor of the House side of Capitol Hill.

Next up: Filling the three GOP vacancies on Appropriations. The open seats at the junior end of the table probably won’t be assigned by the leadership before the end of the year — in no small part because finding Republicans who both want the assignment, and can withstand it politically, is getting more difficult with each passing budget showdown.

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