Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 24, 2014

May 7, 2013

Hill Clout: 4 Big Underperforming States, Plus a Pair of Overperformers

It makes intuitive sense that the states with the most people, which means the largest congressional delegations, tend to have the most influence over national lawmaking and the federal purse strings.

The formula for the Roll Call Clout Index was designed to reflect that notion, with its emphasis on the number of lawmakers each state has at the Capitol, their seniority and assignments to leadership positions and the most powerful committees.

It would be tough for California, by far the most populous state since the first clout study back in 1990, to finish in a spot other than No. 1 — and it never has. It’s big enough that seven of its House members sit on the Appropriations Committee and their share of the panel’s seats (14 percent) is only slightly ahead of the their share of the national population they represent (12 percent).

Size and stability also mean that in the index for the 113th Congress, out this week, the delegations from Texas, New York, Florida and Michigan also continued to hold spots — that they’ve never yielded — in the top 10, and Pennsylvania re-entered that tier after a time away.

But the delegations from four of the 10 most populous states underperformed in the new study — most significantly, the team from Illinois, which at 12.9 million residents is the fifth biggest state, but which dropped seven notches since its 2011 and 2009 rankings. Illinois is now No. 17 in overall clout. Full story

May 6, 2013

9 States Swoon and Surge in Capitol Hill Clout

Amassing seniority and keeping plenty of members in the party in power are two of the most important things a state can do to bulk up its influence in Congress.

Both have been difficult feats for plenty of states recently, given the shift of House control in 2010, the reapportionment and redistricting that soon followed and the much-higher-than-normal departure of 28 senators in the past two elections.

Which is why it’s not a real surprise that this year’s Roll Call Clout Index shows a significant scrambling of the pecking order since Barack Obama’s presidency began in 2009. Some states are seeing surges in their potential for influence, while others are looking at throw weights in precipitous decline.

As mentioned in this space recently, the sudden ascent of Louisiana — which now has the fourth-most-potent delegation after finishing in the low 30s in the previous two studies — was central to the story of the year, which is that the Gulf Coast region has more collective power than any other region. Meanwhile, Massachusetts, which for two decades had routinely finished in the top 10, slipped down to 20th just as the Boston Marathon bombings were putting the state in the national spotlight.

But those delegations were hardly alone in seeing reversals of fortune in the past four years. In part because of generational turnovers in their delegations, four other states besides Massachusetts have seen their spots in the rankings drop by double digits between 2009 and this spring, while new positions of power and surges in federal spending have caused three other states besides Louisiana to jump more than 10 positions. Full story

D.C.’s Neighbor States Flex Outsized Clout in Congress

The 13th biennial Roll Call Clout Index will be scrutinized by congressional staff from all 50 states, all of them eager to see how their bosses’ delegations stack up against the rest. But because a vast majority of Hill aides live in the Washington metro area, you can bet they’ll also be looking at how much potential the states of Maryland and Virginia have in the new Congress.

As you can see in this interactive graphic detailing the results of our study, both states that surround the capital held on to spots in the top 10 — impressive by the objective measure that Virginia is 12th in population and Maryland is 19th. (Obvious spoiler alert: The District of Columbia won’t be found in our study. Not having anything close to full-fledged representation in either the House or Senate essentially negates whatever persuasive powers and committee seniority Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton brings to the table.)

Both Maryland and Virginia have seen their potential delegation influence slip a bit since the last Clout Index.  Virginia, which peaked at No. 5 two years ago, has dropped back one notch. Maryland, which wasn’t in the top ranks a decade ago, came in 9th this time after finishing two spots higher in 2011, but it remains the second-smallest state (after Louisiana) in the top tier. Full story

May 3, 2013

A Surge in Clout Along the Gulf Coast

Gauging congressional clout is arguably an enterprise that falls somewhere between happy hour argument and inexact science. But it’s happening almost constantly on Capitol Hill. Roll Call has tried to help the conversation along for many years now by taking objective stock of every delegation’s potential sway in each of the past dozen Congresses.

The latest iteration of the Roll Call Clout Index is now complete, and the story of how power has shifted in the 113th Congress is clear: The states that anchor the Gulf Coast have much more stroke than ever before. Play this nifty interactive graphic to see why. Full story

Promising Jobs Report Fuels Both Sides of the Budget Wars

For shaping politics, the rosy jobs reports out today are undeniably a kick start for President Barack Obama and a kick in the teeth for his Republican critics. As for shaping fiscal policy, the numbers look to fuel the currently ambivalent muddle.

The headline figures are that a net 165,000 jobs were created in April, well above the consensus forecast and enough to help push the unemployment rate down to 7.5 percent, its lowest level since December 2008. The short-term message countermands some much more ambivalent recent economic data, which had signaled a “spring swoon” for the third year in a row.

But reasons for optimism over the longer term are found just below the surface in the job creation report. The Labor Department now says it underestimated the number of payroll positions added in the previous two months by a combined 114,000. Most notably, instead of the 88,000 new jobs initially estimated for March — a far worse-than-expected number that gave rise to considerable anxiety — the number is actually 138,000 thanks to some additional data.

And those upward revisions mean that, during the previous half year, the economy created an average of 208,000 jobs a month. The conventional view is that a characteristics of an economy that’s healthy enough to shrink unemployment in a sustained way is monthly job creation above 200,000.

The reports will provide evidence for both sides in the arguments over how to shrink the deficit and whether the sequester should be fully turned off before a bigger budget deal is reached.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated those deep and across-the-board cuts will trim the gross domestic product by 0.6 percent this year. Private economists have warned that leaving the sequester in place through the end of the year would hold down private sector job creation by hundreds of thousands, mainly because of its effect on government contracting,

Today’s report will be hailed by some fiscally conservative Republicans as evidence those warnings are overblown, and that the economy is proving itself strong enough to stabilize and start expanding despite the reductions in the size of the federal government they so emphatically espouse. They also point to numbers in the report showing many full-time positions being supplanted by temporary workers as a way for companies to avoid having to provide medical insurance under Obamacare.

In contrast, Democrats will argue that job creation and other economic indicators would be able to do even better if the indiscriminate spending cuts were replaced with a more proactive budget deal that includes trims to health-care entitlements and more tax revenue from the wealthy.  They also note that the full effects of the sequester, which has only been in place two months, will not be felt on business hiring until summer.

“While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” said the president’s top economic adviser, Alan Krueger. “Now is not the time for Washington to impose self-inflicted wounds on the economy.”

Governments at all levels shed an additional 9,000 jobs in April, while private sector firms added 176,000 positions. While 11.7 million people remained unemployed but are still looking for jobs in April, that number is 5.4 percent smaller than it was in January.

The financial markets took quick and enthusiastic note of the news, pushing the Dow Jones industrial average past 15,000 and the S&P 500 index above 1,600 for the first time by mid-morning.

But Republican congressional leaders, who for more than a year have had their “not nearly good enough” news releases queued up to send minutes after Labor releases its monthly numbers, stayed silent for more than an hour before issuing more tepid than usual statements.

The reports “showed some signs of hope for the thousands of people who found a job in April,”House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said, but “this growth is way behind our nation’s potential. We must focus on job creation more than one day a month.”

May 1, 2013

Does Obama Care About Housing Pick Mel Watt?

One day after bluntly conceding the limits of his congressional suasion, President Barack Obama is picking another potential uphill fight with Congress — curiously, by choosing one of its own for a top administration job.

The president is nominating Rep. Melvin Watt — the No. 3 Democrat on House Financial Services in his 21st year as a North Carolina congressman — to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the regulator that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Even before the formal announcement Wednesday, some senior Senate Republicans began signaling they will move to block Watt’s confirmation. Full story

April 30, 2013

Second Chance for Manchin-Toomey Gun Bill?

Do-overs resurrecting legislation that failed the first time are a pretty rare phenomenon in Congress. But Joe Manchin III is predicting that he and Patrick J. Toomey will be able to find the five votes they need to advance their background check expansion proposal a second time around.

A wave of polling in the two weeks since the Senate gun control measure first foundered is offering a decent road map for where to start their search.

Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said on Fox News over the weekend that “some confusion” about the measure contributed to its initial defeat. President Barack Obama has gone further, alleging the National Rifle Association and others “willfully lied” in arguing the measure would lead inexorably to a national registry of gun owners.

But if Manchin and his Pennsylvania Republican partner devote some time to educating close-call colleagues about the reach of their proposal, he says, they will prevail. “The only thing that we’ve asked for is that people would just read the bill,” he said. “It’s a criminal and mental background check strictly at gun shows and online sales.”

Whatever their persuasive skills, the pair will also be aided by polling in states represented by some of the last senators who got off the fence and voted against the background check vote.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, released results Monday of recent surveys showing declines in the favorability numbers for a handful of senators who signaled they were at least considering a “yes” vote but in the end voted “no.”

In Arizona, background checks were favored by 70 percent but the approval rating for Jeff Flake, who won his seat last fall with just above 50 percent, was pegged at only 32 percent. And, by a 21-point margin, those polled said they trusted John McCain, one of the four GOP senators who voted for the background check measure, more than Flake on gun issues.

In Alaska, both senators’ approval ratings have declined sharply since the last PPP survey in February. Both Democrat Mark Begich, who was one of four red-state Democrats who voted against the legislation and faces a tough battle for a second term next year, and Republican Lisa Murkowski saw their approval ratings slip by 8 points — his to 41 percent and hers to 46 percent.

In Nevada, 46 percent of of voters said they would be less likely to back Republican Dean Heller, who just won a full term, because of his “no” vote.

The new PPP numbers come a week after the firm released a poll showing 75 percent support for background checks in New Hampshire but a 15-point plunge in the approval rating for Republican Kelly Ayotte from October to when she voted against the background check language.

April 29, 2013

Obama’s New Cabinet Is Just as Diverse but No More Powerful

ObamaFoxx042913 445x275 Obamas New Cabinet Is Just as Diverse but No More Powerful

Foxx, left, will have no more sway over creating a guest worker program as Transportation secretary than if he remains as mayor of Charlotte. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

With Congress away, President Barack Obama looks ready to grab some easy headlines this week by announcing his choices to sit on the last three empty shelves in his Cabinet.

If all goes according to expectation, he’ll end up with a group just slightly more demographically diverse than the team that was with him when he won re-election. But outside their formalized spheres of power, they’ll have no more influence over legislation or administration policy than the Cabinet members of Obama’s first term or, for that matter, of any such group during the past couple of decades.

And so any senators who may consider fretting about a Cabinet confirmation vote can confine the worry to the topics in the official job description.

If he gets to be Transportation secretary, as Obama proposed on Monday, Anthony Foxx would have no more sway over creating a guest worker program than he would have if he’d stayed mayor of Charlotte, N.C. Maybe less, given how important immigrant labor is to the North Carolina economy.

If the president asks and the Senate agrees to let Penny Pritzker move into the grandest of the corner offices at the Commerce Department, she will have less influence over the potential intervention in Syria than she would have had she remained a politically active and generous philanthropist. And she’ll have none of clout shaping school policy that she had in her last post, on the Chicago Board of Education.

The Cabinet is one of the government’s most misunderstood institutions. It’s mentioned nowhere in the Constitution and its membership has been evolving on the whims of presidents since George Washington. Full story

Why CISPA Is This Year’s Acronym Lightning Rod

It’s becoming an annual pattern: Congress starts moving legislation that would boost federal powers in the digital world without generating much attention around the metaphorical Capitol Hill water cooler, only to find out that the proposal is gaining outsized notice — and outrage — in the real world.

Such was the case last year with legislation that aimed to crack down on Internet piracy, known as SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate. Public anger blossomed so quickly and furiously that both bills were shelved without a vote.

This year’s bill has a different aim — to help federal intelligence agencies and businesses share information about threats to their computer networks — and goes by a different acronym, CISPA. And, so far, it’s fared better, getting through the House on a wave of bipartisan support almost big enough to override a potential presidential veto.

But that was 10 days ago, and members back home for this week’s recess are already reporting that constituents are raising a fuss about the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. It sometimes even exceeds their interest in talking about immigration, gun control or the sequester. Once again, tea party conservatives and ACLU liberals are united in their shared libertarian anxieties about a big-brother government getting too easy access to personal and financial information.

One of the bill’s authors is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whose sprawling Maryland district meanders into the outer-D.C. suburbs. He says he’s been threatened with retaliation by the hacking group  “Anonymous.” That’s why the prospects for the legislation were the topic of my most recent conversation with WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington. You can read about the discussion or listen to it here.

April 26, 2013

FAA Sequester Reprieve: The Start of Things to Come?

Congress moved quickly today toward putting a stop to the air-traffic-controller furloughs. It won’t be the last such backstop effort to skirt the dreaded sequester knife, though it may be the fastest.

Today’s action means that lawmakers will be subjected to only one more sequester-delayed trip home, and perhaps they won’t be buffeted by town-meeting turbulence during the coming recess. But members are sure to be chastised for making an exception to their tough budget rules that only makes life more convenient for themselves and their business constituents.

The House arranged this morning for expedited enactment of legislation the Senate passed Thursday night, albeit on a rushed voice vote after several budgetary hard-liners at each end of the political spectrum had left town.

Now that one relatively small rifle shot has found its mark. And with no reason to believe there will be progress before summer on a sequester-replacing budget deal, there is every reason to believe that May will be filled with well-lobbied lawmaker appeals to relax the across-the-board strictures at other agencies, from the National Institutes of Health to the National Park Service.

Had the hardliners been around, the ad hoc approach to relaxing the across-the-board cuts would have prompted outraged rhetoric from conservative Republicans, who view acceptance of all the indiscriminate but meaningful spending curbs as a decent price to pay for shrinking government; and liberal Democrats, who want the sequester turned off altogether as a way to help a range of people who are feeling the pinch.

The White House echoed that sentiment in a statement announcing that President Barack Obama would sign the bill. “We hope Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families who have had children kicked out of Head Start, the seniors who have lost access to Meals On Wheels, the hard-working employees who have been laid off due to defense cuts, and the 750,000 Americans who have lost a job or won’t find one because of the sequester.”

Republican leaders crowed that the angry reaction — from the passengers on about a thousand delayed flights every day this week — had forced an unusually quick and complete capitulation by Obama and the Democrats, who had been emphatically opposed to taking this sort of piecemeal approach.

“Consider that the Democrats opening position was they would only replace the sequester with tax increases,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a message to his caucus this morning; then they “proposed replacing the whole sequester with phony war savings. And by last night, Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted ‘cut this, not that’ approach.”

The bill doesn’t ease the $637 million in savings the Federal Aviation Administration has to come up with by September as its share of the sequester’s $85 billion grand total. Instead, it allows the agency to cover the cost of fully staffing all the air traffic control towers by trimming as much as $237 million from other accounts for less pressing projects.

That sort of flexibility is generally prohibited under the terms of the law, which was designed to be so mindlessly draconian that lawmakers would come up with some alternative budget solution in time. They may yet, one pet program at a time.

April 25, 2013

Gangs in Congress Go Where Partisans Fear to Tread

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The Senate “gang of eight” unveiled its bipartisan immigration bill at a packed news conference earlier this month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Here’s a bit of Hill news that registered barely a ripple Thursday, in light of all the more pressing matters of the moment: Four top senators are renewing talks on what to do with the nation’s nuclear garbage.

Nothing to shout about, one might say, though the backstory offers insight into one of the defining characteristics of the current Congress: It’s overrun by gangs. Their outside-the-system approach to doing legislative business seems to be working as well as anything else at the moment.

Decades of planning to bury the country’s radioactive waste inside Yucca Mountain came to a halt four years ago, after Sen. Harry Reid made plain he’d spend all his political capital as Senate majority leader to keep the stuff away from his Nevada constituents. But that NIMBY approach is spread far and wide through the Capitol, so there was little chance that any bottoms-up legislative edict could muster a majority.

In other words, an approach dictated by the leadership was not sustainable, but a solution assembled using the committee process was not achievable. And so another Senate gang was born. Full story

Mom to Jeb: ‘We’ve Had Enough Bushes’ in White House

Barbara Bush is getting ready to hear a sarcastic “Thanks a lot, Mom,” from both of her sons.

The former first lady declared this morning that she doesn’t think Jeb Bush will — or should — run for president in 2016 because “we’ve had enough Bushes.” In doing so, she not only complicated things for her second-born boy, who has signaled that he’s contemplating a bid for the Republican nomination next time, but simultaneously stole some of the warm headlines her first-born was expecting from the dedication of  his presidential library. Full story

April 24, 2013

Female Senators Bring Committee Chops to Obama Dinner

Tuesday night’s dinner may have been the most consequential one yet in President Barack Obama’s quest to cultivate a more collaborative and collegial second-term relationship with Congress.

And the president pulled it off by, in essence, crashing one of the most quietly powerful, and rare, bipartisan social gatherings in the capital: the meal shared every month or so by the 20 women of the Senate.

Rather than traipse out to the suburban Virginia home of Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whose turn it was to host, the president invited the group over to the White House at the last minute — but asked if they could have the Alaskan halibut the senator had already arranged to ship in for the occasion. (The provenance of the peach pie was not disclosed.)

All 16 Democrats and four Republicans showed up, even though a couple had initially begged off because of scheduling problems. And, in keeping with the ground rules for their regular suppers, none spoke to reporters when the two-hour gathering broke up just before 9 p.m. The president’s press office said the group discussed the budget impasse, Obama’s job creation agenda, his proposal for federally funded universal preschool, the growing momentum for the bipartisan “gang of eight” immigration overhaul, last week’s defeat of his gun control agenda and the federal investigations and prosecutions in the Boston Marathon bombings.

For a couple of reasons, the meal held as much potential to benefit the president’s agenda as any of his earlier senatorial soirees.

Most tangibly, Obama’s guests control more legislative firepower than the clusters of senators at his three previous gatherings; eight Senate committees are currently led by females. Beyond that, there is a growing appearance the 20 are cultivating the sort of genuinely collegial, non-ideological, professional friendships that have become close to extinct in recent years — the sort of bonds that, in the eyes of so many veterans of the culture of Washington before the 1990s, were essential to making legislative compromise the norm rather than the exception back in the day. In addition, there is some research to support the “men are form Mars, women are from Venus” notion that female politicians are more regularly driven to achieve consensus than their male counterparts.

The guest lists for the other meals were assembled mainly in search of senators willing to compromise; five female Democrats were at the Jefferson Hotel supper a week ago, and three women attended Obama’s two meals with GOP senators.

Separate invitations to the president for one of the female senators’ dinners had been extended in recent months by Murkowski and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The ritual was the initial brainchild of the longest-serving woman in Congress, Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland.

The seven chairwomen in the room were: Appropriations’ Mikulski, Budget’s Patty Murray of Washington, Agriculture’s Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Indian Affairs’ Maria Cantwell of Washington, Intelligence’s Dianne Feinstein of California, Small Business and Entrepreneurship’s Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Barbara Boxer of California, chairwoman of both the Ethics and Environment and Public Works committees.

The other nine Democratic senators are: Gillibrand, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The four Republicans are Murkowski, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.

April 23, 2013

Lame-Duck Baucus Is an Extra Long Shot for Tax Overhaul

When Montana’s Max Baucus first became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee a dozen years ago, a colleague of mine on the tax beat worked this  telling observation into her profile: His remarks in public were so halting, she wrote, that he often appeared as if “still reflecting on what he should say even as the words left his mouth.”

That phrase sprung to mind when word got out Tuesday morning that Baucus was retiring — the biggest 180 in a four-decade career characterized by such sharp and just-when-you-least-expected-them turnabouts. Two hours later, he still wasn’t quite ready to state clearly what everyone already knew.

“I’ve got people I’ve got to talk to first,” Baucus said as moved past the crush of reporters that waited for him to finish a relatively routine committee meeting. “I’m going to talk to my staff right now. And phone calls I’ve got to make.”

The Baucus record has been marked more than anything by a willingness to ignore the wishes of fellow Democrats and the entreaties of his leadership, especially when they conflicted with his perceived political realities back in Montana. But, for lawmakers and lobbyists alike, there is another related aspect of his style almost as important to be aware of — and sometimes even more annoying. Full story

By David Hawkings Posted at 5:53 p.m.
Democrats, Taxes

Putting Ryan Out Front Alters Immigration Debate Dynamic

This week’s most important development in the immigration debate has nothing to do with those testy exchanges at Monday’s Senate Judiciary hearings. It didn’t even happen in Washington. And the central player is one of President Barack Obama’s most prominent critics.

The event was a daylong swing through Chicago on Monday by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who ran for vice president last year on the Mitt Romney “self deport” platform and who has continued to make deficit reduction the focus of his congressional career and his 2016 national aspirations.

That all changed yesterday, when Ryan became by far the most prominent House Republican to endorse a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law. Full story

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