Legislators Organize for the Upcoming Congress

November 16, 2016

Representatives and Senators returned to Washington D.C. this week to hold their first round of organizational meetings to start organizing for the upcoming 115th Congress.

House Republicans re-elected their current slate of leaders after a challenge to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) from the far-right Freedom Caucus failed to materialize. (Ed. Note: The surprise election of Donald Trump has radically altered many dynamics within Congress – Ryan was on the verge of being challenged from the far right of his caucus because he was not conservative enough, but he has been saved by the election of a President who, on many major issues, is significantly to the left of both Ryan and his predecessor John Boehner (R-OH). Plus, President-elect Trump named Ryan’s Kenosha, Wisconsin constituent and good friend of 20 years standing Rence Priebus to be White House chief of staff, a clear signal that Trump wants to work with Ryan and not some other Speaker.)

Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), Republican Conference chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), and Republican Policy Committee chairman Luke Messer (R-IN) were all re-elected to those positions.

The week after Thanksgiving, Republicans will begin evaluating new committee chairmen for the upcoming Congress. Although Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) seems certain to keep that post for two more years, Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) is facing a term limit and has to step down. He will likely be replaced by Rodney Frelinghusen (R-NJ). The chairmanship of the Transportation-HUD subcommittee on Appropriations will probably stay in the hands of Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) unless the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee opens up, but it is more likely that Rogers and Frelinghuysen will simply swap the full committee chairmanship for the Defense subcommittee gavel (Defense is half of the committee’s budget anyway) and everyone else will stay put. House Homeland Security Committee chairman Mike McCaul (R-TX) is a candidate for Secretary of Homeland Security, so that chairmanship might open up. Republicans anticipate ratifying all full committee chairmanships for the upcoming Congress on December 2.

House Democrats postponed their leadership elections until November 20 to give members more time to assess whether or not the election results should force a change in leadership. (Ed. Note: Did any of the House Democrats who voted in November 2002 to elevate Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) to the #1 and #2 positions in their leadership realize that those jobs were lifetime appointments?)

Democrats don’t have term limits on leadership positions or on committee slots, and since none of the major Democrats on the transportation committees retired or lost re-election, no significant changes are see there.

Senate leadership elections were held this morning. Republicans re-elected Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Majority Leader and John Cornyn (R-TX) as Majority Whip.

As expected, Democrats replaced retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) with Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) kept his job after a long-anticipated challenge from Patty Murray (D-WA) failed to materialize. Murray gets a newly created spot as Assistant Democratic Leader and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) remains chairman of the Policy Committee.

In the Senate, the real question is the ratio of majority Republicans to minority Democrats on committees. This is an issue that is negotiated between the Leaders. In the current Congress, where Republicans hold a 54 to 46 advantage, the GOP has two more seats than Democrats on each committee. The upcoming Congress will either be 52 to 48 or 51 to 49, depending on whether or not the GOP keeps control of the Louisiana Senate seat in the December runoff. (Republicans are favored to do so, but Louisiana can always surprise people.)

If the Senate in the 115th Congress is 51-49, Republicans will almost certainly have to reduce their margin to +1 on every major committee. But in a 52-48 Senate, there is no real precedent. Republicans will fight hard to keep their current +2 advantage, at least on most major committees.


There will be major turnover at the top of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) has hit his six-year term limit and is stepping aside, and ranking minority member Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is retiring. Inhofe’s replacement will certainly be John Barrasso (R-WY) – the Senate works on seniority 99.9 percent of the time and Barrasso is next in seniority and has expressed interest in the job. Boxer will be replaced by Tom Carper (D-DE) (Senate Democrats decided it this morning).

While the Senate Commerce Committee will stay the same at the top (chairman John Thune (R-SD) and ranking member Bill Nelson (D-FL) aren’t going anywhere), Aviation Subcommittee chairman Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) narrowly lost her bid for re-election. It is not yet clear who will become chairman of Aviation next year. Republicans generally choose subcommittee gavels in order of full committee seniority, but the GOP also has a rule that you can’t chair a full committee and a subcommittee at the same time (except for Appropriations subcommittees).senate-commerce-gop-nov-2016

Two years ago, Roger Wicker (R-MS) got first choice of subcommittees and chose Telecommunications, which draws a tremendous amount of campaign contributions each cycle from broadcast, cable, tech and IP companies. Then Marco Rubio (R-FL) chose Oceans, because Florida has a lot of Coast. Then Ayotte took Aviation with the third pick. So the question now becomes, will Ted Cruz (R-TX) forsake Space (which is of great importance to Houston) for Aviation (if Cruz even remains in the Senate)? Or will Deb Fischer (R-NE) trade Surface Transportation for Aviation? If the answer to both those questions is “no,” then Jerry Moran (R-KS) is seen as likely to take Aviation – Kansas is, after all, the center of general aviation manufacture (Beechcraft, Cessna, LearJet, and many of their suppliers), plus Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita makes a lot of fuselages for Boeing. If it’s not Moran, the choice would then fall to Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and aviation is of tremendous importance to Alaska as well.

There will be some shuffling at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but it probably won’t affect the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee. Full committee ranking minority member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is retiring. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) exercised his seniority and took the post this morning, four years after declining to take the job so he could stay at the Judiciary Committee. (The prospect of having to be point man for opposition to President Trump’s Supreme Court, lower court, and Justice Department nominees may have played in his decision.)

The Transportation-HUD Subcommittee is not likely to change hands, with Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI) wanting to stay put. But the gavel at the Homeland Security Subcommittee might change hands – the loss of Mark Kirk (R-IL) may set up some musical chairs for his Military Construction/VA subcommittee and the Senators below him in seniority.







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