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Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 5:45 pm | Fair 58º

Inside Washington

Peggy Orchowski: Majority Change in Congress Visible on The Hill

Big changes — including offices, duties and influence — are already under way for congressional representatives

As a congressional reporter in Washington, D.C., for more than seven years now, I’m still amazed at the huge impact the change in the majority party has on the Hill. It’s felt not only in expected focusing of political issues, but in actual physical changes.

Peggy Orchowski
Peggy Orchowski

This year, with the majority in the House of Representatives and more than 60 seats changing from Democratic to Republican, thousands of Hill staffers and affiliates will lose their jobs, alternate positions and/or switch offices, privileges and duties. Just three weeks after the Nov. 2 election, the physical changes in the halls of Congress are already highly visible.

The usually neat corridors of the three congressional office buildings — Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn — on Independence Avenue now are full of boxes. Furniture has been pushed against the walls, and one has to squeeze around congressional maintenance crews’ ladders and work wagons. Inside the offices you see congressional staffs frantically busy as they pack boxes (at times tearfully) with personal items to be sent home, prepare papers (glumly) to be destroyed or archived, or (more happily) organize drawers and cabinets to be moved to bigger offices earned by winning congressional members collecting the benefits of seniority.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, re-elected to her eighth term, will be moving to larger offices in Rayburn 2231 nearer her committee hearing rooms and the subway to the Capitol. Santa Ynez Valley’s Rep. Elton Gallegly, re-elected for a 13th term, will be staying in his offices in Rayburn 2309.

Move out day is supposed to be in early December and office assignments for the survivors and the freshmen congressmen and women were made a week after the election (at a tag lottery for the freshmen). For the next few weeks and through the holiday break, experienced congressional renovation crews will be fully engaged “changing the curtains” and paint (freshmen may choose from among only four standard colors for their outer offices), and in some cases the separation walls, furniture and pictures (it’s always fun to talk to these workers about the move-in/out stories).

In addition to the representatives’ offices, all congressional committee staffs and offices change as well. I didn’t know until I covered the Hill that every House committee (about 20) and many of the subcommittees (about 70) have majority and minority staffs. The duties and numbers of the staffs, as well as the sizes and locations of the offices, depend on which party is in the majority and by how large of a margin. Staff size is one of the first priorities and natty decisions a new Congress has to make.

In 2006, when the House and Senate majorities changed to Democrats, the difference between the two parties was small. The 110th Congress decided to make budgeted majority and minority committee staffs almost equal in number. In the 111th Congress, Democrats got more; in the 112th, Republicans will.

Legislatively, the most significant power of the majority is the right to set the agenda. The majority party gets the speaker of the House, who is its chief manager and can determine which legislation will be discussed on the floor or even whether it will be assigned to a committee. Each committee chair — usually, but increasingly not, the one with the most seniority — sets the agenda for that group, while the “ranking member” (the minority committee leader) has little leverage and smaller staffs with which to make their arguments.

Another, often unknown, effect of the change in the majority is in the proportional number of witnesses the majority and minority committee members get to invite. Normally, committees invite five expert (unpaid) “witnesses” to present testimony (presumably supporting the inviter’s point of view) at a hearing. The majority party is allowed to choose more witnesses proportional to their numbers in Congress than the minority. For instance, in 2006, Democrats were allowed three out of five witness because the party differences were small; after the big wins of 2008, Democrats got four of five. Presumably in the 112th, Republicans will be allowed the most witnesses.

Even committee names and jurisdictions can change with a new majority. In 2000, the Republican majority changed the name of the House Education and Labor Committee to the Education and Work Force Development Committee. In 2006, Democrats changed it back to “Labor” — a vested Democratic word. Will the Republicans change it back in this recession period — or maybe even to something such as “Job Creation” committee?

There is some talk among Republicans to switch energy and environmental policy out of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s jurisdiction to the Natural Resources Committee, probably headed by Washington state Rep. Doc Hastings. Energy and Commerce still would have jurisdiction over trade and consumer protection, communications and Internet technology, health care, and oversight and investigations. Presumably the Republican-run committee will be very busy with the latter in the next two years!

An interesting potential change for the incoming 112th Congress is the party makeup’s effect on the minority caucuses. Two newly elected black representatives and five newly elected Hispanic congressional members are all Republicans. Some already have asked to join the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus and the Democratic-only Congressional Hispanic Caucus. It will be interesting to see if the new members modify the (usually very liberal) stances of the two caucuses.

These changes all will have vast implications for future legislation.

— Peggy Sands Orchowski, who lived in Santa Barbara for more than 40 years, is the credentialed congressional reporter for the Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education in Washington, D.C., and author of Immigration and the American Dream: Battling the Political Hype and Hysteria. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from UCSB.

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