Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 23, 2014

September 15, 2014

Nuclear Option Helped Obama Refashion Bench

reid mcconnell 163 091114 445x275 Nuclear Option Helped Obama Refashion Bench

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ten months after his fellow Democrats “went nuclear” in the Senate on his behalf, President Barack Obama is done putting his stamp on the federal judiciary — at least for the year, but maybe forever if Republicans take control of the place.

Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to exercise the so-called nuclear option, which he and his predecessors from both parties had threatened for more than a decade, created the biggest change in the congressional rules since the 1970s. Taking away the filibuster as a weapon for defeating nominees has given Obama nearly free rein this year in populating his own administration and the regulatory agencies.

Even more importantly, last November’s historic power play allowed the president to brush past intense GOP objections and reclaim an important outlet for perpetuating his legacy: Filling lifetime positions on the courts with like-minded judges who will still be serving long after Obama’s second term is over.

That probably will stop cold if the Senate switches partisan control come January. While Republicans can’t prevent votes on Obama’s choices while in the minority, they would be under no obligation to schedule any roll calls for his nominees if they’re the majority.

No matter what the electorate decides in seven weeks, Obama has already succeeded in his bid to refashion the bench — and the nuclear option has played a significant role. He has filled 30 percent of all the seats on the circuit courts of appeal, with a crucial 13 of those 53 judges confirmed since the filibuster was neutered. The bottom line result is that appointees of Democratic presidents are now the majority on nine of the 13 appellate courts — a nearly total reversal since Obama took office, when 10 had majorities of GOP appointees. (Thanks to four confirmations that launched the Senate’s post-nuclear era, the most important transformation was effected at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second-most influential bench in the country after the Supreme Court because it hears so many challenges to federal regulations.) Full story

September 10, 2014

Campaign Money Debate Won’t Help Hill’s Reputation

cfr presser001 062414 445x296 Campaign Money Debate Wont Help Hills Reputation

Senate Democrats, such as (from left) Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse, are messaging on the Constitution. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s nothing more than another Senate floor sideshow this week, a stage-managed debate in slow motion where the ultimate outcome is such a decisive and foreordained defeat that almost no one is paying attention.

Paying short shrift to the campaign finance constitutional amendment may be understandable, especially in light of the two imminently consequential matters lawmakers must tackle before decamping to campaign: Voting to keep the government open beyond the election and deciding how to take a stand on the coming military intervention in Syria.

But passively perpetuating the enormous role of money in politics for another year, and with nothing more than a passionless “messaging vote,” is worrisome for a couple of reasons for anyone concerned about the badly frayed institutional reputation of Congress.

For one thing, such cavalier handling of a possible change to the Constitution can only intensify the perception that lawmakers rarely place seriousness of purpose ahead of politics.

The public had come to expect the legislative decks will be cleared for the rare deliberations of constitutional amendments, which is what happened when three such matters have come before the Senate in the past decade. (Republican proposals mandating balanced federal budgets, permitting laws against flag desecration and banning gay marriage all came up far short of the two-thirds majorities required.) But this time the Democrats are willing to let their bold idea for reconfiguring the Bill of Rights fade away with a routine walk-off-the-floor roll call. (Wednesday’s procedural voice vote set the stage for the disposative  party-line tally Thursday afternoon.)

For another thing, such a quick sidestepping of the issue will make it even more difficult next time to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to congressional collaboration.

The growing consensus, at least from the outside, is that the torrent of cash coursing into House and Senate campaigns is a main reason the Capitol has become such a dysfunctional mess — and there is no reversal in sight. Other really big institutionalized contributions to the problem include the partisan nature of redistricting and the polarizing of debate on television and online. So a good answer to the question, “What’s poisoning Congress?” starts with the simple mnemonic of the three Ms: money, maps and media. Full story

Heirs Out, Entrepreneurs In on 50 Richest List

black 326 103013 445x305 Heirs Out, Entrepreneurs In on 50 Richest List

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

Ten years ago, the 50 wealthiest members of Congress were 60 percent Republican even though the GOP held 52 percent of all the seats — just like this time. Then, as now, all the lawmakers on the roster were white, no more than 1 in 5 was a woman and a dozen of them had spouses to thank for the bulk of their money.

But, for all those partisan and demographic echoes, the new roster of Roll Call’s 50 Richest reveals how the economic and political upheavals of the past decade have altered the nature of affluence on Capitol Hill.

The heir to the family fortune has become an endangered species at the apex of congressional wealth. Now it’s dominated by the self-made multimillionaire. And the shift is entirely because of the changing face of the Republicans.

Back in 2004, five GOP senators and 10 GOP House members were among Congress’ richest 1 percent principally because of their inheritance — fortunes made in glass, textiles, real estate, appliances, hospitals, farming, frozen food, publishing and banking. This year the comparable roster has shrunk to just four: Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin (a great-grandfather engineered the success of Kimberly-Clark) and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey (descended from a Procter & Gamble founder) remain from a decade ago and have been joined by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio (his dad built one of the nation’s biggest heavy-equipment distributors) and Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida (a granddad started the Pittsburgh Steelers).

50RichestLogo 240x240 Heirs Out, Entrepreneurs In on 50 Richest ListThe 2014 list includes 22 Republicans (four are senators) who can point to their own business acumen as the reasons their minimum net worth exceeded $7.7 million at the end of last year. Ten years ago, there were only a dozen such Republicans.

In other words, the GOP trust funders who have fallen off the roster since 2004 have been replaced almost one-for-one by GOP entrepreneurs. (The number of Democrats who are really rich thanks to either family money or the fruits of their own labors is essentially unchanged.) Full story

September 7, 2014

Really Rich and Endangered: 50 Richest on the Ballot

luncheons001 031009 445x302 Really Rich and Endangered: 50 Richest on the Ballot

Will their ranks on the 50 Richest Members of Congress list hurt Hagan or Warner this fall? (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This week’s unveiling of the 50 richest members of Congress, a signature Roll Call annual report, will underscore the recent reality that about 10 percent of the nation’s lawmakers are in the 1 percent when it comes to their net worth.

50RichestLogo 240x240 Really Rich and Endangered: 50 Richest on the BallotAnother reminder that so many members are so much wealthier than their constituents surely won’t do anything for already abysmal congressional approval ratings (an average 14.3 percent in half a dozen national polls since July 4). To most of the electorate, the roster will be just another annoying reminder of a Capitol Hill that too often seems out of touch.

So the only potential suspense is about whether the revelations of riches will complicate the campaigns for the handful of endangered incumbents on the list. The answer is almost certainly not.

 

Full story

August 5, 2014

Rhetoric Overload, Four Decades After Nixon

mcconnell002 051005 445x296 Rhetoric Overload, Four Decades After Nixon

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell talks about his Russell Office that use to belong to Richard Nixon during an interview in 2005. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Richard M. Nixon’s fate was effectively sealed 40 years ago today. It’s a curious coincidence at the start of an August recess when the extraordinarily serious matter of presidential impeachment is going to be tossed around in such a cavalier and cynical manner.

In the current era of partisan gamesmanship and governmental gridlock, it’s understandably difficult to comprehend what a genuine constitutional crisis feels like. But there is no doubt that’s what steadily swelled toward its climax on Aug. 5, 1974.

That Monday afternoon, Nixon made public transcripts of three conversations he’d had with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman just six days after the June 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. The move ended parallel standoffs — between the president and Congress and between the president and federal prosecutors — that had festered for two weeks, even after the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon could not claim executive privilege and had to fork over the records subpoenaed for the Watergate cover-up trial. The House Judiciary Committee had also been stiff-armed after issuing similar subpoenas on the way to approving its three articles of impeachment, with solid bipartisan support, in July.

Beyond breaking the separation-of-powers fever, the transcripts provided all the evidence necessary to bring Nixon’s presidency to a dramatically swift end. His words, preserved on what came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape, left no doubt he had personally launched a criminal conspiracy. The president had effectively ordered the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, agreeing that top CIA officials should be instructed to pressure the FBI to halt its investigation of the crime on cooked-up “national security” grounds.

Within hours, Nixon’s tenuous wall of congressional support crumbled. All 10 Republicans who had voted against impeachment in committee said they would vote on the floor for at least the article alleging obstruction of justice. (The other charges were abuse of presidential power and contempt of Congress.) Senior Republican senators were dispatched to inform the president he could not count on more than 15 votes for acquittal at a Senate trial. Nixon chose instead to resign, announcing that decision Thursday night and leaving office the morning of Friday, Aug. 9.

The anxiety of that sustained constitutional impasse — capped by a president who had proclaimed “I am not a crook” quitting after being forced to reveal he really was one — is seared in the memories of everyone on the Hill who lived through it. (The most recent reminder was the July 29 death, at age 89, of former Rep. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, who as a freshman on Judiciary conceded he broke down and wept after becoming among the first committee Republican to announce support for impeachment.)

But Watergate also was the formative national trauma for anyone who arrived in Congress from the 1970s through the 1990s, the generations who still hold sway over the national debate. For those politicians, regardless of ideology, Nixon’s forced resignation ranks with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as the dates in their lives that most live in infamy.

The desire to prevent a repeat of the Nixon drama helped prompt Democrats, just 12 years later, to quickly quash calls for President Ronald Reagan’s impeachment, despite solid evidence he violated the law and misled Congress in the Iran-Contra affair. Similar sentiment fueled the Senate’s never-in-doubt, bipartisan 1999 acquittal of President Bill Clinton on the House GOP’s charges that he should lose his job for lying to a grand jury and otherwise trying to cover up his affair with West Wing intern Monica Lewinsky. A decade later, Democrats made clear they had no interest in spending the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency prosecuting him for launching the Iraq War under suspect pretenses.

In that context, this summer’s casual talk sounds astonishing. Full story

July 30, 2014

The Almost Invisible Final Days of a Once-Forceful Leader

cantor 320 072914 445x315 The Almost Invisible Final Days of a Once Forceful Leader

 (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 28, 2014

Possible Senate GOP Majority Would Be Young, but Would Have Enough Elders for Heft

cochran 082 0501314 445x294 Possible Senate GOP Majority Would Be Young, but Would Have Enough Elders for Heft

In a possible GOP Senate majority, Cochran is one of many veterans who could reclaim gavels. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)

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 24, 2014

Why a Namesake Post Office Is All Barry Goldwater Might Get This Year

Few things Congress does come in for more ridicule than its penchant for naming post offices. While the exercise soaks up some floor time and keeps the clerks busy, it alters public policy not one bit. Instead, each new honorific provides lawmakers with nothing beyond a sliver of feel-good accomplishment.

But even perpetuating this hallmark of our “do-nothing” legislative era is becoming complicated by partisan gamesmanship and the ideological strife inside the Republican Party.

The most prominent postal tribute hanging in the balance this summer would offer a startlingly modest tribute to Barry Goldwater — who drove the resurgence of the Republican right half a century ago, was the party’s 1964 presidential candidate and was hailed as “Mr. Conservative” during his three decades as a senator from Arizona. Full story

July 23, 2014

Spending Impasse Solidifies With Midterm Results Holding Next Move

reid 234 072214 445x313 Spending Impasse Solidifies With Midterm Results Holding Next Move

Reid once had grand plans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This week notwithstanding, this summer on the Hill has been less sticky than usual. But it’s shaping up to be as somnolent as ever.

The days leading up to the August recess are by custom dedicated to some of the year’s defining and politically consequential matters: A deal holding down student loan interest rates last year, showdown votes on taxes and drought relief in 2012, the last minute averting of government default in 2011, and confirmations of Supreme Court justices the two previous summers.

This time, no climatic or dramatic get-out-of-town roll call is in the offing. There won’t be a quick fix for the child migrant crisis, and there’s only an outside chance for a deal to patch up the veterans’ medical care system. Congress will agree to keep highway construction funds flowing for just nine months, but that’s just a classic can-kicking maneuver.

The election year void was supposed to be filled with clamorous debates on appropriations bills, which both House and Senate leaders promised would produce some unusually timely progress for this year’s budget process. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen. Full story

July 22, 2014

Elizabeth Warren’s Summer of Surrogacy Helps Keep 2016 Talk Alive

banking004 070814 445x295 Elizabeth Warrens Summer of Surrogacy Helps Keep 2016 Talk Alive

Warren is traveling far and wide, sparking speculation about her national ambitions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

If Rand Paul is taking this summer’s most prominent turn in the Republican spotlight, then the same must be said for his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren among the new generation of national Democratic players.

The two first-term senators are generating their surges in attention in different ways, probably because they have different timetables in mind for their presidential aspirations.

While Paul is overtly laying the groundwork for a virtually certain 2016 campaign with a series of bold fundraising, staffing and legislative moves totally disconnected from his home base in Kentucky, Warren has been taking another tack with a seemingly alternate objective. She, too, has been spending most of her not-in-session time politicking far from her home base of Massachusetts, but almost all her campaigning and cash collecting has been on behalf of others. Full story

July 21, 2014

Rand Paul’s 2016 Buzz Is Buzzier Than His Senate Colleagues’

paul 064 0601114 445x317 Rand Pauls 2016 Buzz Is Buzzier Than His Senate Colleagues

Paul might be on a roll. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The most wide open Republican presidential contest in modern times is shaping up, so a thousand things could change in the 80 long weeks before the first scheduled caucuses and primaries take place. And a couple hundred of them surely will.

With that enormous caveat stipulated up front, it’s worth recognizing that one aspirant is having a bit of a moment. Rand Paul has been generating at least as much policy, fundraising and organizational buzz this summer as any other potential candidate, and certainly more than the other possible contenders out of Congress.

Paul will be returning to the Senate Monday afternoon after spending three days in San Francisco, a highly unusual weekend destination for a conservative from Kentucky. But the senator concluded he had opportunities on three fronts to advance his nascent bid. He could raise money from Bay Area entrepreneurs sympathetic to his libertarian views. He could recruit some tech geeks to join his fledgling campaign staff. And he could deliver the keynote speech at a technology conference, to sell the notion that his views about free markets and personal privacy ought to be catnip to Silicon Valley.

It was Paul’s second such trip in as many weekends. The previous foray was to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was invited to the super exclusive annual conference on media and technology organized by the investment bank Allen & Co. His time there reportedly included private meetings with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

When the August recess starts, Paul will be the first among his most ambitious senatorial colleagues to get to a more traditional political locale — he’ll spend three days in Iowa starting on Aug. 4 raising money for several county Republican organizations. The groups, of course, are crucial players in getting out the vote for the Iowa caucuses, which are (for now) scheduled to kick off the national nominating contest on Feb. 1, 2016. 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

irs hearing009 062414 445x285 Delayed Benghazi Hearings Equal Deliberate Quiet

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

boehner013 071014 445x307 Boehners Bet: Lawsuit Will Quiet Impeachment Calls

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

Sign In

Forgot password?

Or

Subscribe

Receive daily coverage of the people, politics and personality of Capitol Hill.

Subscription | Free Trial

Logging you in. One moment, please...