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Posts in "Political Class"
July 28, 2014
Conventional wisdom holds that if Republicans take the Senate, generational turnover and term limits will combine to produce a balky and potentially amateurish legislative process next year.
That theory gets challenged by a close look at how the committee gavels are likely to be distributed if the party picks up the necessary six seats, which current race-by-race assessments reveal has become a slightly better than even-money proposition. Eight of the 20 chairmanships — including for almost all the premier policy-making panels — would be held by senators who have had such responsibility in Congress in the past.
In other words, the committee leadership in the 114th Congress would benefit from a significant amount of expertise and seasoning, even though in the aggregate the potential new Senate Republican majority would be relatively inexperienced. (If there are 51 members of the caucus come January, the minimum needed for a takeover, only two-fifths of them will have been senators for a decade or longer.) Full story
July 8, 2014
Perhaps by design, and maybe because of circumstance, Jim Risch remains among the least recognized senators after almost six years on the job. But, given the course of his path to Congress, he was at a big disadvantage from the start — if getting noticed was his desire.
In a place where fascinating back-stories and dramatic arrivals count for much, Risch had neither. He sailed to the Senate without suspense, a very conservative Republican claiming an open seat in very conservative Idaho in 2008, when the national political story was the big Democratic year. His credentials included a reputation for resilience and three decades as a power broker in his state house, but he was overlooked from the start and since then has rarely come off publicity’s back bench.
Risch’s underwhelming first-term impression illustrates one of the odder paradoxes of today’s congressional culture: The easier time a candidate has getting to the Hill, the tougher time that new lawmaker has getting noticed upon arrival.
The incumbents, staffers, operatives, lobbyists and reporters who make up the capital’s political class spend almost all their time at the water cooler handicapping the tight races and getting to know the would-be giant killers and takeover engineers. And those winners get disproportionate attention at the start of their congressional careers. Generally, that comes at the expense of the freshmen who got to Washington without breaking a sweat the previous fall.
The phenomenon comes to mind now that this year’s House and Senate nominees have been finalized in more than half the states — yielding a roster of 20 candidates for open seats who are, in effect, already on their way to the 114th Congress. Because of their constituencies’ demographics and solidly reliable partisan voting history, securing the party nomination in their districts or states is tantamount to winning the general election. Full story
June 25, 2014
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 19, 2014
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 17, 2014
Some of the most pointed passages in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new memoir confront the congressional Republican criticism about Benghazi. That’s hardly a surprise, given that the book is so clearly a positioning document for another presidential run in which one major line of GOP attack will be against the former secretary of State’s handling of the assault on that U.S. diplomatic post in Libya.
What comes off as much more of a surprise is how Clinton steers almost entirely clear of criticizing individual Republicans from Capitol Hill, while singling out a collection of prominent establishment GOP members for praise. The roster of congressional name checks in “Hard Choices,” in fact, is remarkably bipartisan. She says nice things about her dealings with a dozen Democratic senators or representatives, but almost as many Republicans, during her eight years in the Senate and her subsequent four years at the State Department.
Counting up the mentions in a prominent politician’s book is among a typical Washington striver’s bad habits, and many on the Hill have been doing just that in the week since the book went on sale.
But in this case, the exercise could offer a clue about how Clinton may deal with Republicans if she seeks or wins the White House in two years. She may be content to remain on decent terms with a small cadre of GOP centrists, the sort President Barack Obama has labeled the “common sense caucus,” while disdaining and dismissing her legions of conservative critics without calling them out individually. Full story
June 12, 2014
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 28, 2014
Updated, 3:20 p.m. | With public hearings still weeks away, it’s too soon to fairly predict whether a purely political show trial or a riveting investigatory breakthrough is in store from the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi.
But it’s not too early to look at the cast of characters who make up the panel’s membership for clues about what each side has in mind. (Check out our handy cheat sheet.)
In some aspects, the makeup of the parties’ rosters is fundamentally different, in ways that make clear the Republicans are planning to be on offense from the outset while the Democrats are going to dig in to play defense. In other areas, the group is a reminder of the stark biographical differences between the two caucuses. But in a few ways, the committee’s characteristics are curiously different from the House as a whole.
Most consequentially, while one out of every eight districts nationwide is at least somewhat politically competitive at the moment, no one on the select committee sits in one. All 12 are virtually certain to win re-election in November. That means none of them has any short-term political need to adopt the role of evenhanded inquisitor, because none needs to play it down the middle to appeal to the swing voters who could decide their fate.
On the contrary, the Republicans have been given an opportunity to fortify their conservative bases by taking on the Obama administration as forcefully as possible, just as the Democrats have been afforded a way to appeal to their liberal bases by adopting a “Let’s move on, there’s nothing to see here” approach. Full story
May 21, 2014
Pennsylvania’s primary voters have put an exclamation point on one of the lesser-understood realities of modern American politics. Being in the House is just not a good starting point for being elected governor.
Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz was soundly defeated Tuesday in her bid to become the Democratic challenger this November against Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, one of the most politically vulnerable state chief executives in the country. Her loss means that, for the 10th time in the past 13 election cycles, half or more of the members who ran for governor were unsuccessful.
The outcome in Pennsylvania leaves only one other person on the Hill eyeing the top job in a statehouse. That’s Rep. Michael H. Michaud of Maine, who has the Democratic nomination to himself and looks at the moment like a slight favorite come November against Gov. Paul R. LePage, another unpopular GOP incumbent in search of a second term in a currently bluish state.
The fact that only two members of Congress decided to give up their seats for gubernatorial bids is hardly unusual; the number making that move in the past 25 years has ranged from 11 in 1989-90 to just one last cycle. That was when former House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence was elected in Indiana, prompting more buzz about his national prospects in 2016 or beyond.
But Pence was something of the exception proving the rule. His victory raised the overall record for congressional lawmakers seeking governorships in the past quarter century to 23 wins and 48 losses — a success rate of just 32 percent.
The result is that, while 49 percent of the Senate’s membership is now made up of former House members, only nine current governors came straight out of Congress. (Two more, independent Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Democrat Mark Dayton in Minnesota, won their positions in comeback bids four years after being pushed out of Senate seats.)
The facts behind the differing fortunes of this year’s two-member class of gubernatorial aspirants, Schwartz and Michaud, help explain the challenges for House members seeking to move up. Full story
May 7, 2014
He asked for it. And anyone politically savvy enough to win two Senate elections must have decent reasons for doing something that seems so counterintuitive.
Mark Pryor is the only Democrat in the Arkansas congressional delegation and currently a clear-cut underdog to secure another term. That’s mainly because only about a third of the state’s voters approve of the job performance of President Barack Obama, even poorer numbers than his 2012 faring — the president lost Arkansas by 24 percentage points. In 2008, he lost to Sen. John McCain by a mere 20 points in the Natural State.
And yet it was at Pryor’s urging that Obama on Wednesday made his first trip to the state as president — a 150-minute foray that in reality was largely about midterm campaign politics, even though it was officially all about getting the first-responder-in-chief to put his own eyes on the South’s severe natural disasters.
“The federal government’s going to be right here until we get these communities rebuilt,” the president said after touring the tornado-ravaged suburb of Vilonia, 30 miles north of Little Rock. “I know you can count on your senator” and other local officials to deliver what will be required, Obama said, facing the cameras in shirt sleeves with a checkered-shirt-clad Pryor standing near his right shoulder.
Because of some unusual circumstances, the visit did not countermand the conventional wisdom that standing with the president is the most dangerous thing a vulnerable congressional Democrat could do between now and November.
Instead, the event provided Pryor with an extraordinary opportunity to burnish his own political brand. Full story
April 30, 2014
Political rhetoric gauge alert: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
The meter surged Tuesday morning when the House GOP campaign organization lambasted one of the year’s most prominent and best-financed Democratic challengers, 27-year-old venture capitalist Sean Eldridge, for “not even trying to hide the fact that he isn’t living in” the upstate New York district where he’s running. “Eldridge’s open contempt for the place he supposedly wants to represent is appalling,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ian Prior declared.
The news release could easily be dismissed as just another bit of routine springtime campaign hyperventilating. But the histrionics sounded exceptionally hypocritical for this reason: Eldridge was lambasted by an NRCC that is fully aware several of its own top 2014 prospects do not live in their prospective districts, either. Full story
April 29, 2014
The people who work in committee or personal offices on Capitol Hill can claim something of a unique benefit from representative democracy: They have more than one set of members to call their own.
Their allegiances aren’t only to the senator or House member, chairman or committee members who keep them on the payroll. Those lawmakers may dominate their workaday lives, but every such staffer is also a local congressional constituent — with a set of political allegiances and ideological interests that may well be different from what’s on display in their day jobs.
And this year, more than any other time in at least the past two decades, these Hill rats will be important players in deciding the makeup of the next Congress. That’s because thousands of them will be voting in three of the hottest contests of the midterms, for the pair of open House seats in northern Virginia and the state’s Senate race, which Republicans hope will become competitive.
Most congressional aides probably live close to their work in the District, where Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton is once again cruising toward another term (it will be her 13th) as the can’t-vote-on-the-House-floor delegate. Staffers who live in solidly blue suburban Maryland have seen only three congressional races that were even remotely close in the past decade.
But the booming Northern Virginia suburbs, fresh off their star turn as gubernatorial must-wins in 2013 and presidential bellwethers in both 2008 and 2012, are now looking at a very expensive triple encore in 2014. Commuters who cross the Potomac for jobs at the Capitol could prove decisive if all three contests remain close until their climaxes.
And they will all probably have the opportunity to vote for someone who knows their line of work: former Hill staffers are running as Republicans in all three races. Full story
April 14, 2014
The Supreme Court has made pretty clear that putting your money where your mouth is deserves broad protection as a form of free political speech. The justices are about to consider whether outright lying in a campaign deserves a similar First Amendment shield.
The court’s recent decisions easing the flow of generous campaign contributions already shifted the electoral landscape. If the court finds that even the most patently outrageous statements about candidates may not be barred by law, those two decisions combined could expand the rhetorical battlefield of the midterm elections and raise the attack ad volume as never before.
With Congress in the middle of its spring recess, few if any members are expected to attend the April 22 oral arguments. But they will all surely have their ears tuned for word about the decision, expected by the end of the term in June.
April 8, 2014
He’s sounding politically tone deaf, of course, but on the merits Rep. James P. Moran has a solid case to make about congressional compensation.
Social media lit up with ridicule for the suburban Virginia Democrat last week, after he boldly told my colleague Hannah Hess, “The American people should know the members of Congress are underpaid.”
It’s a call to arms that someone running for re-election, even in the safest district, would be a fool to make at a time when the institution’s approval rating stands at a near-record-low 15 percent and the median household income in the United States is less than one-third of a member’s annual salary of $174,000.
Which is why, amid all the howling about how Moran should have his head examined (right after he’s impeached), there’s been precious little interest in understanding the justifiable reasons for such a provocative complaint, let alone what the congressman would do to improve the situation. Full story
March 28, 2014
There’s a nickname for news reports so provocative that readers are compelled to give them a literal shout out. They’re called “Hey, Martha!” stories — as in, “Hey, Martha! Come read over my shoulder: You’re not going to believe this!”
Just such a doozy dominated The Washington Post’s front page on March 23. It detailed how the government processes federal worker retirement forms: entirely by hand, almost exclusively on paper and always deep inside an old mine in rural western Pennsylvania.
As if that picture of bureaucratic inefficiency were not jaw-dropping enough, the story explained the sobering consequences: The process takes an average of 61 days. More than 23,000 cases are backlogged on a typical day. And, after spending more than $130 million since the late 1980s on three different modernization efforts that failed, there’s almost no chance the system will hook up to the computer era — let alone the Internet age — in the foreseeable future.
What that means is that more than 100,000 outgoing government employees annually — dozens of veteran congressional staffers and Capitol complex laborers among them — can expect to wait more than two months before their retirement is official and they start seeing their full benefits. (Usually, checks representing partial estimated payments show up sooner, but even those became seriously delayed during last fall’s partial government shutdown.)
In the current tight budget climate, and given that combating federal retiree hardships isn’t a politically important cause for many lawmakers, Congress will not be spending what it takes to automate or digitize the process — or to bring it out of the darkness.
But, just as it won’t seek credit for ending the cave age system, it doesn’t deserve credit for starting it, either.
People familiar with the Hill’s old earmarking culture may assume the paperwork mine came into being under the auspices of a couple of powerful lawmakers. The available circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise.
March 26, 2014
Running gets a lot tougher when you’ve injured yourself. Three topflight Senate candidates are about to find out whether their aspirations have been slowed a bit by a political stubbed toe — or hobbled indefinitely because they’ve shot themselves in the foot.
Within just a few news cycles this week, we saw a trifecta of unforced errors. Ex-Sen. Scott P. Brown volunteered “probably not” when asked if he has the proper credentials to seek a seat in his newly adopted home state of New Hampshire. Rep. Bruce Braley apologized after seeming to gratuitously insult all the farmers in his native Iowa. And Mitch McConnell was forced — twice! — to alter a campaign advertisement because of footage that caused consternation in basketball-crazed Kentucky.
The cluster of incidents underscore several truisms about modern competitive congressional contests: Virtually everything a candidate does or says gets noticed, recorded and repeated. Symbolic snippets that reinforce problematic aspects of a politician’s reputation stand to be remembered more than a dense policy speech or an extensive voting record.
And so those who head out on the stump would do well to adopt the physician’s maxim, “First, do no harm.” Full story