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

February 9, 2014

Newest Senator Will Test (Historically Limited) Potency of Appointed Incumbency

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( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Although John Walsh will become the newest senator on Tuesday, the historical record and the political temperature in Montana suggest he’ll have no better chance of winning this fall’s Senate race than he did before.

The conventional wisdom is that Gov. Steve Bullock has done his hand-picked lieutenant governor and fellow Democrat a phenomenal favor by sending him to Washington now. The post offers guaranteed visibility that will enhance his name recognition, the benefits of being on the inside that will boost his fundraising and the powers of the job that will allow him to deliver in ways that will prove the power of incumbency impossible to beat.

In fact, that’s hardly been the rule in the past, and it hardly looks to be reliably the case this year.

Walsh’s name will be added to the roster of 51 appointed senators of the past half-century. But of that group, only 19 of the 36 who tried went on to leverage the advantages of incumbency into election in their own right — a 56 percent success rate. Another 15 were placeholders who got out of the way at the next election.

And the final two, both tapped at the end of 2012, will now be joined by Walsh in seeing their places in that database decided this year. Each falls into a different camp. Full story

February 5, 2014

Republican Hedges His Bets by Targeting House Seats in 4 States

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

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

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

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

February 4, 2014

Vote Studies Show Double-Sided Numbers for Senate’s ‘Red State Four’

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Pryor voted against Obama more often than any other Senate Democrat last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama cited a single number again and again in warning that John McCain was not the sort of change agent the country needed: His Senate colleague and presidential opponent had voted with President George W. Bush 95 percent of the time.

The figure was plucked from the database of CQ Roll Call vote studies, a treasure trove for opposition researchers since the annual assessment of congressional voting patterns began in the early 1950s. And the number — accurate only for the previous year, when McCain tacked right in his pursuit of the Republican nomination — was seen as plenty effective in puncturing the Arizona senator’s reputation as a centrist maverick.

The selective marshaling of statistics is a necessary skill for politicians as much as it is for policymakers. And the work has been gearing up in recent weeks, as the landscape for the midterm elections becomes more clearly defined and the first congressional primaries (in Texas) loom in only a month.

A plurality of the attention is already focused, and looks destined to remain, on the quartet of Democratic senators running for re-election in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012, because how well they fare will go a long way toward determining if Senate control switches to the GOP next year. And so plenty of scrutiny is being given to the glass-half-full, or glass-half-empty, nature of what our 2013 vote studies reveal about how loyal they’re being to both Obama and their party line. Full story

February 3, 2014

Tea Party Class More Confrontational Than Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2, 2014

Sober Look at the Depth Chart Intensifies for House Democrats

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

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

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

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

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

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

January 29, 2014

Before Going It Alone, Obama Goes After Members

“Upbeat.” That’s the adjective being used as much as any other to describe the tone of Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Members from both parties could be forgiven for hearing it a bit differently.

The speech may well be remembered longest for its genuinely stirring finale, when President Barack Obama merged the story of a 10-times-deployed and gravely wounded Afghanistan war veteran, who was sitting in the balcony, with the country’s difficult path toward a more perfect union. “Like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama declared to a sustained and teary-eyed standing ovation.

But in the preceding 63 minutes, the president mixed it up plenty with the audience in the House chamber. And he made clearer than ever that he views the Capitol as a readily avoidable impediment — generating headlines about Obama pursuing a “year of action” mainly on his own authority. He also took a handful of swipes at Congress, and they were arguably aimed at least as often at the institution’s bipartisan shortcomings as at his Republican tormentors.

The japes were somewhat subtle, by the standards of today’s political discourse. And they are being overlooked, probably for a couple of reasons that have to do with the ritualized ways of the modern State of the Union:

The lawmakers themselves have become almost excessively adept at cooking up their partisan talking points hours beforehand, and repeating them verbatim with minimal regard to what they actually hear. So not all that many of them picked up on his poking one-liners — all of which were at the relative low end of the dismissive-disdainful-disparaging spectrum.

Full story

January 28, 2014

A Minimum Wage Move With Maximum Confrontational Consequences

Among the stranger phenomena of the modern State of the Union tradition is how White Houses of both parties work so hard to drain it of almost all news value before the speech actually gets delivered.

The demands of the continuous news cycle, which affords the president so many opportunities to spoon out dollops of his agenda, now easily outweigh the traditional virtue of surprise — and the old-time verity that there’s no use annoying your hosts, your opponents or your potential partners before you absolutely have to.

The trend seemed locked in place Tuesday morning, 13 hours before the national television audience was asked to start paying attention. That was when the administration revealed what was guaranteed to be among the biggest, if not the biggest, headlines out of the address: President Barack Obama is going to give many thousands of blue-collar workers a raise — on his own authority.

In other words, not only was Obama making good on his promise to make this his most assertive year yet for maneuvering around the gridlock at the Capitol, but he was getting started even before going through the formalities of seeking congressional buy-in. (Of course, he made a major push for a $9 minimum wage in his State of the Union address a year ago, and that went nowhere.) Full story

January 27, 2014

Seat Scramble for Big Speech Loses Its Crossover Appeal

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In 2011, Republicans and Democrats arranged to sit side by side at the State of the Union as a gesture of bipartisan goodwill. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Seems like “date night” just isn’t a thing anymore.

Three years ago, many dozens of Republicans and Democrats arranged to sit side by side at the State of the Union. The break with decades of tradition was orchestrated in hopes of persuading the country that civil discourse and bipartisan collegiality had gained renewed value in Congress after the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

The roster of cross-aisle seating arrangements remained plenty big the next year, but there was a noticeable falloff in 2013. And, unless the situation changes in the last hours before President Barack Obama arrives at the Capitol on Tuesday, spotting crossover seatmates in the House chamber looks to be a genuinely difficult task this year.

The putative tradition, like the annual House “civility retreats” more than a decade ago, looks to be fading toward oblivion. The soft ending nonetheless underscores how the bilious nature of today’s congressional culture can slowly poison even the most benignly symbolic and fleetingly telegenic gestures toward cultivating common ground.

A survey of two dozen senators, all of whom connected with senators of the other party in 2012, found only four couples volunteering plans for keeping the custom alive on Tuesday night.

Full story

January 24, 2014

At Retreat, House GOP Will Decide Best Way to Sound Retreat on the Debt

Better-than-even odds say the Great Debt Limit Debate of 2014 will be over before it really gets started, maybe by the end of this week.

House Republicans will decamp from the Capitol on Wednesday, hours after sitting on their hands through most of the State of the Union address, and will reconvene 85 miles away at a sleek golf resort on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. By the time their annual policy retreat ends two afternoons later, their leaders expect to have an answer to one of the most vexing questions they’re confronting this election year: How hard does the rank and file want to resist the next increase in federal borrowing?

The congressional calendar, combined with the vagaries of the government’s balance sheet, argue strongly against procrastinating. And this time, taking a relatively easy way out of the impending jam looks to be the way the House GOP will go. They are likely to signal that retreat at the end of their retreat.

The leaders have a few fig leaf feints in mind — one involves the Keystone XL pipeline, the other congressional pay — and it’s likely they’ll settle on a plan that allows their team at least one burst of bellicosity and a couple of hostage-taking roll calls.

But the post-shutdown Republicans do not really have the stomach for another sustained confrontation that could rattle the markets. Nor do they have the sort of tactical myopia that will lead them for very long down a course that threatens to squander their current midterm election advantage. They know their only viable option is to extend the Treasury’s borrowing authority, with no policy strings that would raise President Barack Obama’s hackles, until after the midterm elections.

And so it’s possible that the required legislation will be cleared even before Valentine’s Day. That would prevent constituent or Wall Street anxieties from welling up during the Presidents Day congressional recess. Voters can also be counted on to have minimal patience for debt limit countdown clocks competing for coverage with the Winter Olympics, another argument against waiting until the last week of the month. Full story

January 22, 2014

The Real ‘American Hustle’: Could Abscam 7 Happen Today?

In a year when the label “worst Congress ever” is being invoked as never before, a movie about the most over-the-top corruption scandal in congressional history is topping the roster of Oscar contenders.

But will that prove to be bad luck, or a bit of good fortune, for the Capitol’s currently dismal reputation?

It’s easier to predict that the success of “American Hustle” will reinforce the public perception of the Hill as a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) den of thieves. But it’s possible, and arguably more appropriate, for the audience of voters to come to a somewhat different conclusion: While the lawmaking system may have become deeply frozen by partisanship during the past three decades, the baseline for congressional morality actually looks to have gotten a bit better since then.

Of course, there remains the expansive and minimally regulated gray area in which campaign contributions cross paths with legislative interests, with the best-connected lobbyists always figuring out ways to enjoy insider access to the lawmakers who matter most. And a dozen or more allegations against members, most of them relatively petty, are moving through the ethics process at any time. But only twice in the past decade (Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham of California in 2005 and Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana in 2009) have members been convicted for taking straight-up bribes.

There’s a persuasive argument to be made that corruption at the Capitol has decreased because sunshine on lawmaker behavior has increased. Self-policing by Congress, though improved a bit in recent years, is only partly responsible. Sharing the credit are investigative journalists, government watchdog groups, the new monitors of social media — and also the old-line purveyors of the popular culture.

So the film’s director, David O. Russell, should be credited with performing a valuable, if unintended, public service, along with spinning a terrifically entertaining and financially successful caper yarn. (It has been nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Already the winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy and the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Ensemble prize, “Hustle” has taken in $117 million after six weekends in theaters.) Full story

January 15, 2014

This Year’s Legislative Acid Test: Immigration Rewrite

tree lighting009 120313 445x288 This Years Legislative Acid Test: Immigration Rewrite

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In theory, some people are refocusing attention on Congress this month after a period of total disconnectedness that began after the last election. For them, the most astonishing thing is surely that an immigration overhaul remains on the to-do list.

The start of the new legislative year has been preoccupied with talk about unemployment benefits, Iran sanctions, restrictions on government surveillance and the completed-at-last annual budget. But behind the white noise lies this reality: Thanks to all the sky-high expectations after the 2012 results created an obvious political sweet spot, the 113th Congress is going to be remembered more than anything else as the time when immigration policy did — or did not — get revamped for the first time in a generation.

If that somehow happens after a year of fits and starts, it will likely stand not only as the historic domestic policy achievement of President Barack Obama’s second term, but also as a sign the Republican Party is returning to realpolitik.

And if the 2014 legislative effort comes up empty, it will reaffirm not only the president’s significantly shrunken legislative sway, but also the GOP’s interest in cultivating its most conservative fringes at the expense of all else.

Framed in those stark terms, it should be tough to predict that impasse is the likely outcome. That’s why advocates of a big bill, not only in the Hispanic community but also in the business world, are stoking every inkling of momentum. Full story

January 14, 2014

Hill Budget’s Fine Print: Less Than Meets the Skeptic’s Eye

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

That 19th-century aphorism “figures don’t lie, but liars will figure” comes to mind when poring over the mind-numbingly comprehensive midyear appropriations package — especially the 44 pages covering the political minefields and minutiae of spending on the legislative branch.

The nation’s legions of Congress-haters are scouring the fine print and concocting their own spreadsheets. They are expecting to uncover evidence that what’s labeled Division I of the omnibus is an exercise in deceitful and hypocritical self-dealing — and are confident they’ll be able to argue persuasively that those voting “yes” this week will be guilty of feathering their own nest at the expense of infinitely more pressing national priorities.

They are being urged on by dozens of Capitol Hill’s own current stewards. These most conservative Republican senators and House members are all too eager to demean the institution in which they work — especially when doing so serves as rationale for opposing a bill with a tough-to-comprehend bottom line cresting $1.1 trillion.

With a couple of narrow exceptions, the naysayers look to be quite disappointed. Full story

January 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2014

A Balance of Powers Case With Senate GOP Power in the Balance

One of the biggest congressional stories of the decade starts unfolding Monday — not at the Capitol, but across the street.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in an epic balance of powers battle between the other two branches, one that’s been waiting to happen since George Washington’s time. During the hour, the justices may or may not signal clearly whether they’re going to permit the continued expansive use of the president’s recess appointment authority — or seriously limit its use for the first time.

That second outcome would give the Senate enormously more influence over the leadership of the departments and agencies and the tenor of the federal courts. But if the court rules that way, it will be almost impossible to notice any difference in the power dynamic before the beginning of next year — if then.

It may sound a bit paradoxical, but it’s the “nuclear option” that would guarantee such a delayed reaction.

And during that delay, a new measure of importance would get attached to the midterm elections. Full story

January 10, 2014

An Ethics Conflict Avoidance Period?

Biggert 04 110609 235x335 An Ethics Conflict Avoidance Period?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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