Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
July 29, 2014

May 7, 2014

Why Pryor Decided Time Was Ripe to Appear With Obama

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Greasy Piglets Vs. Guilty Elitists: A Climate Standoff

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In summarizing how the debate over the future of the planet played out Tuesday, the temptation to resort to a cliché proves too great.

The growing effects of global warming in all regions of the country were chronicled in unsettling detail in a report assembled over four years by hundreds of prominent scientists assembled by the government. But the study’s release by the Obama administration was met in Congress with nothing more than a bipartisan blast of hot air.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the scientists declared, writing in simpler language than most federal reports so that voters and policymakers alike might readily absorb the message. “Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,” it goes on. “Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.”

The stark tone did not appear to sink in right away at the Capitol. Through no coincidence, senators were supposed to begin debating a modest measure to promote energy efficiency — but, as is so often the case, they devolved instead into an argument over the terms of debate.

“Often times working with my Senate Republican colleagues reminds me of chasing one of these little pigs in a greased pig contest,” Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declared. “Regardless of all of our efforts, any time we get close to making progress, it seems as though we watch it slip out of our hands.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky countered that Democrats were only “about alleviating the guilt complexes of liberal elites,” whom he described as “the kind of people who leave a giant carbon footprint and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets.”

The readily apparent bottom line from this latest “So’s your mother” rhetorical duel: The chances have dropped precipitously that Congress will contribute in even the most modest way in 2014 to reducing Americans’ contribution to the warming of the Earth. Full story

May 5, 2014

Gowdy Tailor-Made for GOP’s Benghazi Assignment

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(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 4, 2014

Sexual Harassment Training for Congress: No Mandate, but Wise Idea

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(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A voice vote in the House usually means the proposal is genuinely beyond reasonable opposition, despite today’s very low bar for rancorous discord.

That was the case last week on an amendment to reduce Capitol maintenance by $500,000 next year and instead spend the money on enhancing sexual harassment training for members and their aides.

In (yet another) election year when Democrats will accuse Republicans of “waging a war on women” at almost every turn, there was immediate bipartisan agreement on this much: Congress could stand to allocate a little less for floor wax and light bulbs in order to do a better job informing its employees what their rights are, the many forms of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace and where to turn if they are harassed by colleagues or superiors — including their elected bosses.

Still, it was something of a surprise that no member demanded a roll call vote, which would have meant someone insisting on going on record against an idea seemingly above reproach. Surely some anti-regulatory Republican conservative in a safe district would be ready to take the political risk — especially after hearing the ranking Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, declare that the language was written “to provide mandatory sexual harassment training for all congressional offices in the House.”

But that isn’t what the language says. It does not create any mandate for members. Unless the provision is strengthened by the Senate or in conference, there can be no headline declaring, “Lawmakers must undergo training to prevent sexual harassment.” Full story

May 1, 2014

Minimum Wage Vote Loss Gives Democrats Their Wedge Issue

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Senate Democrats are lambasting congressional Republicans on the minimum wage, just in time for the midterm elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Long before Wednesday’s totally predictable Senate vote blocking a bill to increase the minimum wage, President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress had embraced their guaranteed consolation prize.

It’s a construct as venerable as the Capitol itself: They will not have the bill, but they are plenty satisfied to have the issue.

In fact, especially if some sunshine newly cast on policy deliberations in the Clinton administration can be considered instructive, the Democrats may have gotten just what they wanted all along from one of the first big show votes of the campaign season.

“This is all about politics,” Minority Whip John Cornyn declared before the Senate came up five votes short of advancing the minimum wage legislation beyond a GOP filibuster. “This is about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hard-hearted.”

To support that assertion, the Texas Republican introduced into the record a document that his side views as powerful past-is-prologue evidence, unearthed from an avalanche of papers created in Bill Clinton’s White House and being released this year by the National Archives. It’s a January 1998 memo to the president about that year’s minimum wage debate. The author was Gene Sperling, who then ran the National Economic Council. Sperling, of course, returned to that job during the Obama administration, leading the NEC for three years ending this March, as Obama’s own minimum wage goals were evolving. Full story

April 30, 2014

Who You Calling a Carpetbagger?

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Roberts, left, and Brown, right, have been subject to charges of carpetbagging ahead of their (very different) election bids this cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Hill Staffers Get Their Turn: Hot Contests for Region’s Voters

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Beyer is running in Virginia’s 8th District, one of three races Hill staffers will likely vote in. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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 27, 2014

As Congress Returns for 9-Week Slog, 5 Areas Are Ripe for Compromise

Congress returns Monday afternoon for its longest run of the year — nine straight weeks when the lights will be on in at least one chamber. And, for so many glimmers of policymaking hope, it’s getting close to now-or-never time.

The House will be gone again in two weeks, the Senate will take off all of Memorial Day week and the House will be dark again the first week in June. But the next bicameral break is not until June 30 through July 4.

But don’t be fooled by the slog from spring into summer that’s now getting started. For the 113th Congress, it’s later than you may think.

After Independence Day, there are just four weeks until the August recess, which lasts five weeks, including the week starting on Labor Day, followed by maybe as few as a dozen days in session before early October. That’s when the House majority leadership has promised members they can go home to campaign full time, and the Senate’s likely to follow suit.

That’s not much time for genuine legislating, especially given that both parties plan to spend much of the time using the Capitol as a sound stage for their political messaging. This week, for example, the Democrats who run the Senate will make a big show of their obviously-going-nowhere legislation to raise the minimum wage by 39 percent in just two years. And the Republicans who run the House will go after headlines with their entirely-for-show vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the agency’s scrutiny of conservative political groups.

But there are still dozens of members in both parties working in the shadows toward deals that would refute the conventional wisdom that nothing will get done this election year. Serious talks are under way about how to finance the next generation of road construction, once the highway trust fund is emptied later in the year; how to meaningfully shrink the Postal Service’s overhead, and how to get a majority of House Republicans to “yes” on an immigration overhaul.

Any breakthroughs on those fronts are probably a season away. But here are five areas that remain ripe for important accomplishment in the next two months: Full story

April 21, 2014

President Pressured to Use Pen for LGBT Workers

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It could be dubbed the federal contractor trifecta.

Employees at businesses that do a lot of work for the government began this election year hoping to benefit in three distinct ways from President Barack Obama’s vow to act on his own whenever Congress deadlocked on his legislative priorities.

Two of those expectations have now been met. In January he ordered contractors to start paying their blue-collar laborers at least $10.10 an hour, realizing his proposal to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage to that amount was doomed. And this month he declared that workers on federal contracts must be free to discuss their salaries, so women may more easily expose pay inequities at those companies while legislation that could close the wage gender gap nationwide languishes.

Now, the pressure will only intensify for Obama to make good in the third area. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees being paid under federal contracts want to benefit from the same sort of executive order that is aiding female and low-wage workers. And their advocacy groups, along with allies on the Hill, are signaling they’re tired of waiting for the president to apply his “we can’t wait” mantra to their cause.

The issue is job bias against LGBT people. While steady advances continue in the states for same-sex marriage — still the paramount political cause of the gay community — outlawing employment discrimination has become the principal gay rights cause in Washington, in part because it’s unambiguously subject to federal regulation or legislation in a way that marriage equality is not.

Only 21 states have made it illegal to fire or harass someone based on sexual orientation, or to deny a raise or refuse to hire on that same basis. More than 11 million people work in the remaining 29 states for companies without policies protecting workplace civil rights for gay people, according to a recent study by UCLA Law School.

Last November, 10 Republicans joined 54 Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that would prohibit gay job bias nationwide at businesses with more than 15 workers, with some exceptions for religious organizations. But House Republicans have no interest in putting the bill on the floor. (Known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, it’s currently 16 votes shy of guaranteed passage, in any event.)

In short, the gay rights community sees their “ask” as a clear parallel to the minimum wage and pay parity issues. They argue Congress isn’t ready to change the situation nationally, so Obama should at least start paving the way by helping out people working for or seeking employment from government contractors. Full story

April 16, 2014

‘Lying in Politics’ Plaintiffs Go on Offense in Several New States

The lead plaintiff in the “Can you lie in politics?” case going before the Supreme Court next week, anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, says Ohio’s law against false campaign assertions will stifle that state’s midterm congressional debates.

The group is apparently not worried about a similarly chilling effect elsewhere – at least not in four races elsewhere in the country where it’s inserted itself in recent days.

Over the weekend, the SBA List said it has arranged to put space on billboards across three Southern states to lambaste a trio of incumbent Democratic senators in some of the closest Senate races of 2014: Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Because all of them voted for the 2010 health care overhaul, each of them can fairly be described as supporting federal financing of abortion, the group says, and that will be the central message on the roadside signage. Full story

April 14, 2014

Can You Lie in Politics? Supreme Court Will Decide

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The Supreme Court will consider a case about lying in politics, revisiting a fight from Chabot’s 2010 campaign in Ohio. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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.

Full story

April 9, 2014

History Lesson for McAllister: Members Caught Pursuing Staffers Never Survive

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

Rep. Vance McAllister is showing every sign he’s hunkering down in hopes of saving his nascent political life. But recent House history signals that it’s going to be a futile pursuit.

His troubles are unique in one respect — no member in modern history has seen his congressional career beset by scandal so quickly. It was just 137 days from when McAllister was sworn in to represent northeastern Louisiana, the Republican winner of a special election, to the release of grainy security camera footage of him in an 18-second lip lock with someone who is not his wife.

But Melissa Hixon Peacock is not simply a 33-year-old married woman caught canoodling with a 40-year-old congressman. Back when they were making out just before Christmas, and until Tuesday when she left the government payroll (whether voluntarily or not isn’t clear), she was his district scheduler. And that’s what places McAllister in what’s almost assuredly a non-survivable predicament.

In the past eight years, four other men of the House have been exposed for having, or seeming to seek, sexual relationships with congressional aides. None of them stayed in office longer than a couple of weeks.

Several members in the past few decades have (at least for a while) survived their sexual transgressions, substance abuse admissions, financial improprieties or other personal failings. But the punishment for dalliances with staffers has always been a swift political death penalty — no matter whether the behavior was by a Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, consensual or predatory, back home or on the Hill. Full story

April 8, 2014

Pay Equity Bill Exposes Gender Gap Politics for Senate GOP

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Shaheen is one of the female senators the GOP would need to defeat to win control of the chamber this fall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Like so many legislative arguments, this week’s intensified debate about the gender gap in wages has been obscured by a fight over which side has the better statistics.

President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in the Senate like the Census Bureau data, which shows total earnings by women were 77 percent of what American men made in 2012. Republicans and business groups point instead to 2012 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which suggest a narrower chasm: Women earned 86 percent of what men got.

Which formula offers the fairest measure is ultimately beside the point on both policymaking and political grounds.

No matter how many caveats and qualifiers are factored into the calculations, the result from those and all the other government and academic studies is consistent. Women are still paid measurably less than men for doing the same work. And the Republicans in Congress are steadfastly opposed to the legislative remedies they’ve been offered for closing the gap. Both truths have remained essentially unchanged for years.

What has changed is the political gender gap, steadily widening and reaching record proportions — to the seemingly obvious and dangerous detriment for the Republicans. Full story

A Case for Moran: ‘Underpaid’ Is Accurate

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

April 6, 2014

A Landmark Election Ruling, Made by Justices With Minimal Campaign Involvement

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The scene at the Supreme Court as justices heard oral arguments in McCutcheon vs. FEC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One way of looking at the latest Supreme Court decision speeding the flow of big money into elections — a ruling destined to have a bigger impact on the culture of Congress than anything that happens at the Capitol this year — is that one side’s definition of political reality narrowly prevailed over the other.

Scenarios about the corrupting potential of so many more millions going to candidates, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asserted in the controlling opinion, “are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or divorced from reality.”

“In reality,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer countered on behalf of the four dissenters, “the anti-corruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest” than the five-person majority recognizes.

It’s hardly unusual that, after considering the same collection of facts and arguments, the court’s conservative majority declares the glass at least half full, while the liberal minority insists the same vessel is more than half empty. What’s remarkable in this disagreement is how distant the justices are from experiencing the reality of the modern political money system.

On the current court, only Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan have donated to federal candidates or political action committees in the past 16 years, according to the Federal Election Commission database of itemized contributions.

The most obvious reason is that the other seven justices have been sitting somewhere on the federal bench since before 1997, when the FEC began digitizing donation records. And, because of the obvious potential for a conflict of interest, the official code of conduct for United States judges prohibits them from making political contributions.

But that explanation leads directly to one of the longstanding criticism of the modern Supreme Court: It has become so dominated by professional jurists that people who have worked in the political arena have been almost entirely boxed out. Full story

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